Basma El-Husseiny: Big dreams realised, more to come

Ati Metwaly, Monday 10 Oct 2011

Over the past eight years, Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy has introduced new dynamics to Egypt’s arts scene; Ahram Online talks to Basma El-Husseiny who has new ideas to revitalise arts and culture in Egypt

Basma Al Husseiny - photo by Bassam Al Zoghby

With recent concerts taking place in Aswan and Cairo, Remix 2011 was the culmination of yet another successful event by Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy, which cooperated in this project with the Aga Khan Cultural Institute. Remix 2011 was a collaborative workshop of musicians from the Arab world and Central Asia that allowed participants to reassemble diverse expressions of a shared musical heritage in contemporary forms.

Remix proved to be a successful project, yet for Basma El-Husseiny, director of Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy, it is one of the many initiatives she’s leading through the organisation. Filled with endless ambition, El-Husseiny proves that hard work and dedication can bring many changes to the field of culture in Egypt and make many dreams come true.

Basma El-Husseiny has been in the arts and culture field since the 1970s and 1980s she worked with the independent theatre groups. “There was always a great independent theatre scene in Egypt producing interesting works with often very limited funds,” El-Husseiny tells Ahram Online.

“I worked with many directors and even tried directing myself. It was community theatre that was always most attractive to me.”

Those theatrical experimentations later led Basma to work in community theatres in a variety of popular districts such as Boulaq Dakrour, Bab El-Shareya and Qayt Bey where she worked on popular stories told by people from the area.

Apart from artistic realisations, years of experience within community theatre have opened El-Husseiny’s eyes to the importance of a dynamic logistical support system for any theatre play, such as the ability to obtain funds for accessories, sometimes asking small workshop owners in the area for help. “At this stage, I realised that acting or directing was not my major calling and I started developing a big interest in management side of arts,” explains El-Husseiny

El-Husseiny’s further work was at the British Council in Cairo, where she concentrated on arts activities, eventually becoming director of arts programmes run by the council, responsible for organisation of art exhibitions, music events, and cultural exchanges. “It was at the British Council that, with practice, I learnt what professional arts management is,” El-Husseiny states.

From the British Council, El-Husseiny moved to the Ford Foundation where she worked as a consultant for art-related funding. She learnt how to filter and bring to light valuable art projects that would incorporate originality and creator accountability. El-Husseiny left the Ford Foundation right after 9/11, linking her decision to the political turns that occurred. On the other hand, she states that, “As much as I benefited and learnt over the five years of working within the foundation, I felt I was ready for a new step.”

This is when the idea of Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy (Mawred) was born, in summer of 2003, when a small group of cultural activists discussed the idea of establishing a non-governmental and non-profit Arab cultural organisation. The group was registered as a non-profit organisation in Belgium and operates throughout the Arab region and has its regional office in Cairo.

El-Husseiny underlines her belief in the power of investment in the arts. “Public institutions can play a major role in this regard,” she explains. “I would hope Mawred to be a public institution, such as those successful ones that operate in Europe – take the BBC as one of the huge examples. Mawred is just a humble trial towards a public art institution, as we have lots of limitations due to many restrictions placed by the law.”

Ever since its creation, Mawred has launched dozens of activities aimed at the development of the arts scene and individuals across the Arab region, opening exciting opportunities for many young talents.

“The dynamics of our activities are very high as if you do not grasp a talent at the right moment, it risks getting buried under life pressures, and the promising painter, musician or director drifts away to a corporate life or travels to Gulf to find living. It is our role to find and nurture such talents,” El-Husseiny explains.

In 2005, El-Genaina Theatre, located at Al-Azhar Park, was added to Mawred. “Due to its location it took some time for El-Genaina to take off but now, most of the events taking place there have a full audience. The theatre serves all activities held by Mawred and we rent the stage to institutions that want to utilise the space.”

El-Husseiny adds that El-Genaina represents a small part of Mawred’s activities in Egypt and is a drop in an ocean in the institution’s regional scope of work. “Our main work is in a supportive role through social management, communication, monitoring, exchange, artistic development, setting plans for artistic development for the artists. Around 35% of it is within Egypt’s scene while the rest benefits the whole Arab arts region.”

El-Husseiny underscores presence of a great artistic potential in the whole Arab region and points at the particular creative energy that surfaced during the Egyptian Revolution and the following months. 

“This energy is present at all times, even prior to the revolutions that swept the Arab world. Many young artists crave to express themselves in a variety of art forms; some of them are exceptional,” notices El-Husseiny.

“They have this newly discovered sense of freedom and as such wish to pour out everything they have to say, here and now. Everything in the arts seems to be bubbling at the moment; there is a lot of foam. However, we are still to see what will come out of it.”

El-Husseiny points at new artistic expressions which have especially come to the surface in recent months, such as street events like Fan El-Midan. “There is no censorship in the festival which takes place on the first Saturday of each month. There is a good side to this phenomenon which is the empowerment artists experience; they gain confidence which in its turn allows them to generate artistic propositions. Their audiences have a chance to think critically about those propositions, whilst time will define their artistic value.”

However, El-Husseiny sees many obstacles towards a true artistic renaissance. She uses Tunisia and Egypt as examples of countries where the complete structures need to go through dramatic modification. She finds that current regimes are still extremely oppressive, in terms of censorship, limitations set on the emerging talents, killing any possible talents that could add great values to the arts scene and who are instead suppressed and eliminated.

“Mubarak has been removed but what now?” El Husseiny asks. “The arts structure is still there, same people, with minor reshufflings, set within the same skeleton. Creating new departments within the same map or internal divisions are not going to bring big results. Anyone working in this unchanged skeleton is not able to bring significant changes to the culture field as a whole.” She explains that it is not about changing people but about changing ways of thinking about art and accordingly changing complete structures.

“The bravery of the revolution gave a unique opportunity for change to take place within the political frames which ruled our public life during the past 30 years.”

As she states in a five page document developed to explain the change process, the plan comes as a response to the basic demands of many intellectuals and independent artists, asking to dismantle the Ministry of Culture which to them represents years of corruption.

“The plan is a road map to transformation the main sectors of the ministry into public institutions caring for the cultural dynamics and the preservation of cultural national resources.”

El-Husseiny believes that it is the role of non-governmental institutions to practice cultural work, providing cultural services to people.

“As such, the ministry should give up the role of producer and distributor of culture. The ministry should turn into a small ministry that has a political and administrative role and is an intermediary between cultural public institutions on the one hand and the parliament and government on the other hand.” She underlines that the goal is to find a democratic, executive and organisational environment that supports cultural activity, aims to reach the vast layers of society, and opens horizons for cultural activities and free expression for all intellectuals and artists.

El-Husseiny pictures the plan’s execution in two phases, each one year long. The first phase being based on cleansing the ministry of corruption and reducing the number of employees. “Younger people can be offered a variety of development plans, training etc; older people could receive optional early retirement plans,” she suggests as a solution.

It is equally important to restructure the five main sectors of the ministry: The Supreme Council of Culture, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the General Book Organization, the Academy of Arts, and the Cultural Palaces Authority. The second year ends with the transformation of the five sectors into five independent public institutions, supervised by a board of trustees of public figures that work voluntary.

El-Husseiny’s plan shows her understanding of the road that Egypt needs to pass in order to become a fully democratic and culturally reborn country. She strongly believes in the feasibility of her ideas based on the example of other countries which went through radical restructuring in many sectors.

Equally she recognises major challenges in many other sectors, such as education. “Art education in particular is practically not existent in Egypt. Moreover, many young people in Egypt are not even interested in education to support their passion. Many of the young musicians, including those performing in El-Genaina as well as other venues, do not have basic knowledge of their craft and this is definitely an educational deficiency. There is a lot of work to do,” she asserts.

Mawred’s activities keep growing stronger within the Arab world, and many artists achieve their dreams with the support of the institution. With so many accomplishments under her belt, El-Husseiny is still waiting for Egypt’s renaissance, which she believes will come once her hopes find reflection in actual changes on many layers, including work on new structures, change or development of mentalities as well as dynamic education.

Short link: