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Social change reaches Alexandria through the arts

For more than a decade, the Alexandria-based Gudran Association for Arts and Development has pursued social transformation through artistic projects and support for local culture

Rowan El Shimi, Friday 9 Nov 2012

Alexandria, a city seldom thought of when thinking of Egypt’s contemporary cultural movement, continues to prove its vital role on the cultural scene. In past months, the Mediterranean city has hosted cultural festivals almost on a monthly basis, along with a continious line-up of independent musical, literary and theatrical events.

Perhaps a major part of the recognition due for the booming scene should go to the Gudran Association for Arts and Development. The association's most recent focus has been on bringing arts to people who lack access to it, as well as providing platforms and spaces for artistic talents to flourish and learn from each other.

The beginning: El-Max

"Gudran started as an initiative between a group of artists. Our philosophy was that we had a role to play," Sameh El-Halawany, one of the founders of Gudran and an active member of the association, told Ahram Online. "This role should be with the people in a direct manner not just through exhibition spaces where artists showcase the work they do. We felt our role was beyond these limited spaces, in actual culture and social settings," he said.

"Art is also a human need, whether for children of adults," according to Halawany. With this philosophy in mind, the group of artists sought to take the first steps in bringing art to a community in dire need of it. Not just to satisfy the human need for art, but also to have art become a mirror through which society could reflect on itself and be able to imagine solutions to its social and economic conditions.

In 2000, the group started to work with a small fishermen village on the Mediterranean coast called El-Max. The village had an eviction notice pending on its residents since 1996, to pave the way for other projects in what was regarded by the government as a slum area. The problem was that eviction would mean taking the community away from its source of income, which was inherited, along with ending an era of life in the area dating back generations.

"We entered the community through the children," Halawany said. "Children are the key to getting into a community. They gave us legitimacy from people's homes to everywhere else. When a child comes to work with you, even once, whether painting or sculpting or anything, and then they go home and share their positive experience with their parents, step by step a beautiful relationship starts to form with the community."

In 2003, Gudran chose a house in the middle of the village to work from, which eventually became one of their offices as an organisation. This house hosted various artistic workshops for children. Later on, they started hosting handicraft workshops for women, to revive traditional handicrafts of the area. From this point on a strong working group of artists joined the cause.

El-Max became a hub for artists who wanted to engage with a local community for social development, bringing artists from all over the world, who were met in good spirits by the community. Gudran hosted workcamps to restore houses, repaint the city, with volunteers from El-Max and outside of it.

"We wanted the place to shine," Abdallah Deif, another active member of Gudran, said. Deif went on to explain that with all the cultural expressions and development efforts put into El-Max, along with the pressure on the government from locals, the eviction process ground to a halt. "When people started changing their perspective on that place, so did the decision makers in charge," he commented.

More than 10 years later, Gudran's El-Max space continues to work, according to Halawany and Deif, with three youth from the community running it and hosting regular workshops for children, along with a space for women's handicrafts that now acts as an income generating project for the community. "These handicrafts are unique; you would never find duplicate items," Deif explained. "They are artworks in the form of clothes."

Downtown Alexandria: El-Dokkan and the ahwas

After the success of El-Max, the artists decided the time had come to bring that spirit of change onto the heart of Alexandria — its downtown neighbourhood. Even if the economic and social conditions in the neighbourhood were better than El-Max, Gudran still recognised the need for art.

"We wanted to get people together to think of their lives in a different way, specifically their problems in a different way, for them to gain an understanding of their own capabilities. There is an imagination crisis in our society, people don’t imagine what could happen." Deif shared the association's viewpoint with Ahram Online: "It is not our role to impose our point of view on a community with a top down approach; our role is to offer a way for this society to rethink how they would like to develop. We could help people identify the problem, because sometimes that can be the issue."

Many who work in social development share this ideology with Gudran. For sustainability’s sake, if a community becomes dependent on an external non-governmental organisation or charitable group, they will not overcome their problems. However, if the community can be empowered to solve their own issues and develop solutions themselves, this becomes the new reality.

With this philosophy in mind, the group then moved to Souk El-Mansheya, the downtown market in Alexandria, a vibrant area with many salespersons and passerbys. Gudran went on to open an exhibition space in the area for visual arts called “El-Dokan” (The Shop). "We had it in the same manner as the other shops in the neighbourhood," Deif commented. They also made it a point to get to know their neighbours to establish themselves in the community. El-Dokan continues to showcase visual arts with a lot of people coming in to see the work along with theatrical performances that take place on the street.

While El-Dokan proved to be a success, Gudran still felt the need to further engage the public with art.

“It's very difficult to convince youth to go to the theatre or an exhibition, so we started to work with them in the ahwas (coffee shops),” Halawany said. Egyptian youth spend most of their social time in ahwas drinking tea, smoking shisha, playing games, watching football, or talking to friends. "We all got our culture from ahwas,” Deif added.

Activities in the ahwa projects varied from theatrical performances, music concerts, to exhibitions. Most ahwas they work with are downtown. However, they steer clear of the ahwas that are frequented by Alexandria’s artistic community, like “El-Togaria” or “El-Borsa.”

People asked many questions at the beginning when Gudran started the ahwas project. “The questioning then turned into requests. People would ask us when we were going to host a performance. There was demand," Halawany said.

In Halawany’s opinion, the perception of art in Egypt is a social issue. He believes most people look at art as something that is just for rich people, which is why Gudran wanted to bring art to ordinary people, making it accessible and providing a wide spectrum of arts from different social classes.

“People would get astonished that a young man or woman from a very simple background is doing something extrodinary, which in turn nurtures the faith people have in their own talents, whether artistic or other,” he said.

El-Cabina: Nurturing music and literature

The ahwa projects saw Gudran grow organically into the next phase — supporting the growing cultural sphere in Alexandria. The association saw that while the cultural movement was growing. Sustaining it became an issue. Artists were having a hard time finding places to practice and perform, funding, technical support and connections with others on the scene.

A friend of the members of the association, Nicola Katsprisi, Greek-Alexandrian, was head of the company Enosis that owned the builiding next to Cinema Realto near Safeya Zaghloul Street (one of the busiest in Alexandria). When the cinema moved, the building was neglected. Out of Nicola’s belief in Gudran’s mission, he donated the building to the association and in 2010 this became El-Cabina, now one of the most active cultural centres in Alexandria for music and literary arts.

“We never would have dreamed to have a place like this, which probably would cost thousands of pounds just to rent each month,” Halawany said.

Always open to the public, and a place where people can come to hang out, El-Cabina in June hosted a five day music festival called Oufuky, and regularly hosts musicians from Alexandria and outside of it. Another component of El-Cabina is a music studio for bands to practice and record music. Renting the studio costs LE5 per hour instead of LE75-100, which is what studios cost on average. The studio hosts 37 bands who practice there regularly, including a number that grew exponentially over the past two years. The overall vision of the studio and performance space is part of a bigger project called 'El-Mashtal" (The Greenhouse) that aims at fostering the independent Alexandrian music scene.

On the upper floor of El-Cabina, the library works on literary arts, with a vast selection of the latest books available and a borrowing system where people can simply give their phone numbers and borrow books for free. “There are only 20 unreturned books,” Daif said adding that books going in and out daily. The library hosts regular film screenings and also organises meetings with literary figures such as Sonallah Ibrahim, Khaled Fahmy, Ezz El-Din Shokry and several others on a monthly basis. There is always a theme and the figure comes not to give a lecture, but to talk to people on an informal level. 

El-Cabina also parallels the ahwas project. Some performances take place in El-Cabina while others take place in ahwas.

Future projects

What the future holds for Gudran is yet to be revealed. However, the group is planning to start a project to nurture independent cinema. The group want to create a space for independent cinema, including production. The group is also setting out to create a museum for Egyptian cinematic history through one of Egypts oldest production companies, Bahna Films. The old office of the company is going to be donated to the project and Gudran aims to start working on this project over the next months.

“It was beautiful that after working in El-Max and witnessing the social change that happened, that you see society give you back what supports your idea, which in reality goes back to them. The opportunities we get come faster than our organisational growth,” Halawany reflected with a smile.

“Some people see what we're trying to do as utopian, stupid or unrealistic. We were all told that one way or another. Then you discover it was those people that were just short sighted," he said.

“The truth is, you do good and it comes back to you,” Halawany concluded.

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