An indelible link has materialised between artistic expression and revolution. Maybe it is the features they share: freedom, deviance and fluidity, which bring them so close together.
In any case, Egypt’s January 25 Revolution undeniably led to a surge of creativity across the country; a rebel’s passion merges with an artist’s desire to express. Truly remarkable artwork has emerged throughout the tremendous change and unfolding events.
At the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) venue in downtown Cairo on Sunday a diverse group of artists, videographers, photojournalists presented the Alternative News Agency. It is a publication that emerged out of a 2-month series of workshops that revolved around questions of alternative practices in visual media.
Funded by the Dutch Embassy, the Alternative News Agency is the sequel project to a 2010 pilot working with 12 artists, photojournalists and bloggers. It aims to place the image-making practitioners in a critical setting, allowing them to produce individual visual projects against a collaborative backdrop that provide a more creative narrative than mainstream media’s often pragmatic rhetoric.
The body of work produced tackles the interplay between mainstream journalism and artistic expression, placing current events in artistic context, and in turn, art in a political context.
In weekly self-educational and group-learning sessions, during the turbulent months of December 2011 to February 2012, the 12 participants developed ideas of image production and circulation in chaotic environments.
The sessions were infused with a dual force, a revolutionary one and an artistic one, which is reflected in the resulting publication.
It also enjoys a lack of unity: each of the participants, who have emerged from different backgrounds and artistic disciplines, chose a contrasting angle through which to create a narrative.
Lengthy discussions and dynamic reflections, consequently, underlie the Alternative News Agency.
"Are you joining us in the sauna?" a member of the audience shouted out to latecomers at the launch event on the warm Sunday evening.
The CIC in Cairo, a photography school located in the heart of downtown Cairo was packed with an eclectic audience, eager to learn about the workings behind the collarborative project.
Slowly, the fans stirred a light breeze into the room and the speakers began to explain the idea behind the project.
"This is a different approach to visual media,” said Silvia Mollicchi, who directed the workshop. "In light of a politically charged atmosphere, 12 participants produced completely different projects."
The nature of the project was extremely collaborative, says Mollicchi.
The workshop featured guest speakers from diverse fields, including Egypt Independent editor and journalist Lina Attalah, photographer Thomas Hartwell, artist Rana El-Nemr and web-developer Tayssir Hawari.
Sessions led by professionals enriched the experience, and harnessed a sense of knowledge sharing.
Jasmina Metwaly, an artist who has been deeply engaged with the revolution, presents "left-over" images from her activism videos.
Since the revolution, Metwaly has become a sort of “artivist”, combining art and expression with revolution and change.
Metwaly slowly detached from her role as solely a filmmaker and responded to unfolding events through art.
Through collective initiatives such as citizen journalism media collective Mosireen and Cinema Tahrir, which organises Tahrir-based screenings of footage from protests and clashes, she helped document the revolution.
Metwaly started teaching people to use their phones to capture the unfolding events that were changing their lives.
"As an artist in Egypt, like many others, I started using art for expression. We have to talk about reality, and learn how to express it," Metwaly discusses the importance, under such intense circumstances, of realising the intermingled realities of revolution and art.
Art loses its abstract qualities in times of resistance and struggle, Metwaly suggests, and becomes a reality through which artists can realise socio-political realities.
"There was an urgency to respond to realities, some did it through Molotov cocktails, others through pictures," says Metwaly with a smile. "We fight the way we can, with the tools that are available."
In her project, Nadine Marroushi challenges the narratives created by images through re-imaging scarred spaces in downtown Cairo. The artist is fascinated with the changing landscape, and examines the importance of "continuously photographing, constantly shifting to capture images and preserve history."
Also examining the relationship between the city’s changing architectural structure and society is Rowan El-Shimi’s photo essay entitled Breaking Barriers: Walls as a Product of our Society. The artist was drawn to photography as a means through which to convey truth. "Words can be misleading, but through photos you can learn truths or refute lies."
El-Shimi immensely enjoyed the workshop, and firmly believes in the power of learning simply through conversing with different individuals.
Metwaly shares her sentiments, and describes how the revolution has created a necessity and longing for artists to work collectively. "Although we (the participants) come from different backgrounds, being with the revolution brought us together."
Photographing the Mohamed Mahmoud wall, which was erected after a five-day long continuous battle between protesters and the police on the surrounding streets, which was later taken apart by residents and passersby, El Shimi captured the socio-political contexts in which urban landscape exists.
The Alternative News Agency is another project that reflects the unavoidable link between art and revolution. Artists living in Cairo are surrounded with a barrage of political happenings and the line is often blurred between artwork and journalistic content.
Yet the publication produced throughout this workshop displays the raw and free nature of art, and its unique ability to give alternative narrative to current socio-political events.
Alongside the launch of the Alternative News Agency, the CIC is hosting a series of talks under the title, Parallel Narratives. A talk and debate about contrasting visual narratives with Laura Cugusi will take place on Monday 14 May 14at 7pm, and The Contemporary Photograph as a Discursive Document, a talk and debate with photographer and filmmaker Ronnie Close will be held on Tuesday 15 May at 7 pm.
Contemporary Image Collective (CIC)
4th Floor, 22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat
Downtown, Cairo, Egypt