Artistic performances in public spaces are not new to Egypt; many folkoric arts used to take place in the street, including the aragoz (an Egyptian traditional puppet show), moulids (street festivals linked to religious celebrations) and the wonderbox (a puppet show inside an enclosed box complete with peepholes, providing visuals to accompany a story being recited).
In spring 2014, Mahatat for Contemporary Art, a Cairo-based art initiative that hosts artistic projects in public spaces, toured the capital with its own version of the Wonderbox, created by ten local artists.
Looking to revive the ancient art with a contemporary twist, the box provides the visuals to aid storytelling by performers and musicians on Cairo's streets.
Starting on 9 October, Mahatat will continue their programme of bringing art to the streets, and keeping contemporary artists inspired by traditional arts, in Mansoura, Damietta, Port Said and finally in Cairo once more.
“We are aiming to revive old traditions of art in the public space,” Heba El-Cheikh, Mahatat's executive director told Ahram Online. “We are not reinventing the wheel because art in the public space has always existed.”
The tour will run for five days, and will feature two groups of artists. Abo Karim marching band, which features nine musicians and percussionists playing instruments specially designed for public space performance, is a sub-project of the Oscarisma troupe. Joining them will be the El-Kousha puppets theatre troupe, known for performing with giant puppets in public spaces including festivals and even protests.
The tour is part of a larger long-term project entitled Art of Transit under which Mahatat launched its initial activities, which involves professional artists performing in public spaces as a form of artistic intervention. The first project included performances on Cairo's metro and other public spaces, and featured many prominent artists and projects such as Outa Hamra, the BuSSy project, and others.
Another Art of Transit tour is set to take place in December in the same cities, and the next planned one will be in March in collaboration with Hakawy Festival for Children. Mahatat hope these tours will be taking place quarterly over the next three years.
In some cities, artists from the local city will also be joining the tour. In Mansoura they will be joined by guitar and Sufi troupe Sebha Khashab, and in Damietta they will be joined by Basma Workshop for Children.
(Photo: Rana El Nemr / courtesy of Mahatat for Contemporary Arts)
“We are trying to make art more visible in the invisible parts of the city,” El-Cheikh said. “Places such as residential areas – neighbourhoods that are not really seen.”
The initiative is driven by the belief that art should open and decentralised, and this belief informs most of their projects.
Damietta was an obvious choice for the new tour, as the crew's 2013 project was centred there. Dubbed 'Face to Face', the project features workshops that aim to build the capacity of local artists and art managers. The first edition of Face to Face featured a photography workshop, a theatre workshop and two lecture programmes on visual arts and filmmaking.
Face to Face will continue between November and January 2015 in Damietta with a creative writing workshop run by published author Mohamed Abdel-Naby.
The workshop features three six-day intensive labs, which run each month. The results of the workshop will be turned into either an online or a printed publication.
According to El-Cheikh, the choice of the topic of the workshop comes from a needs assessment they conducted prior to setting the curriculum. Mahatat plans to gradually add workshops in the other cities they are focused on.
Mahatat are also aiming to run workshops on event management and culture management with local independent art centres there such as Magaz (a small community library) and Made in Damietta (an initiative promoting local handicrafts).
Both Art of Transit and Face to Face are part of a long-term project entitled 'Shababeek' ('Windows') which aims at offering increased access to art, whether in terms of viewing art or creating it.
In May 2015, Mahatat will launch the final element of the project, called 'Art Stations'. The aim is to get communities, who are not professional or emerging artists, to work together to produce art work for public spaces. The projects are implemented through local community based organistions, and will begin in Manial island in Cairo, where Mahatat's office is located.
In the three years in which they have been working in public spaces in Egypt, Mahatat have found that there is still great opportunity for artists to take their work to these spaces, especially since there is a lack of independent art spaces in Cairo and even more so outside the capital.
Although in the last year, interventions in public space – whether artistic or politcal – have been met with greater sceptism than in the previous two years that followed the 2011 revolution, Mahatat believe it is still possible to have art present in public spaces.
“I always bet on joy being contagious,” El-Cheikh said, adding that the key is to be transparent and communicative with the community, and noting that in their experience people have been very interactive with the performances.
Dragon Puppet (Photo: Ziad Hassan / courtesy of Mahatat for Contemporary Arts)
Ahram Online is the official media sponsor of Mahatat for Contemporary Art's tours in Mansoura, Damietta, Port Said and Cairo.