Egyptian arts: Two years after the revolution

Farah Montasser, Thursday 24 Jan 2013

As Egyptians gear up to commemorate the January 25 Revolution, artists reflect on the past two years, how the period impacted the arts, and what the future holds.

Graffiti revolution
Archived from Ahram Online

Throughout the past two years new names have climbed the ladder to fame in the visual arts and music, and yet the film industry was left behind. Attacks by Islamists, lack of artistic education, and a lack of variety and creativity, in addition to the depressive atmosphere we live in today, claim many artists, has infected the entire arts and culture scene Egypt with despair.

Islamists' dominance of the country is believed among artists to be a main challenge now. Arts in general have witnessed a new Islamist-centred censorship drive in the street, including Islamist marches on El-Fan Midan, the monthly street art fest organised by the Independent Coalition for Arts, and the barricading of Cairo Media City last year. Meanwhile, Islamist leaders filed lawsuits against actress Elham Shahin (a suit she won in September), and Adel Imam (which he won in April), raising concerns across the culture field.

Last year, in particular, saw dozens of examples of where Islamists challenged artists, interfered in or completely halted artistic events or productions in the making.

The new censorship

Among all artists today, the attacks of Islamists on the arts is being taken as a new form of censorship replacing Mubarak's police state. Resisting this censorship is understood as a major challenge.

"Freedom of expression and speech are being terminated with the street censorship we witness today by Islamists," Hanan Abdullah, a documentary filmmaker, stated referring to Islamist marches and their attacks on cultural resources. 

Abdullah continued: "Once all governmental institutions and authorities are set, censorship will take over and we will see more limitations in all fields."

Egyptian actor Nabil El-Halafawy concurs, adding: "How can there be art and creation in an environment full of depression, fear and disturbance?"

In interview with Ahram Online on 17 January, El-Halafawy said the arts in Egypt were under challenge by radical Islamists dominant in government. He underlined: "I haven't seen any progress since the revolution."

Actor and political activist Khaled El-Sawy added his concern at the state of the arts under Islamist rule. "We will continue to fight to protect Egyptian art," El-Sawy said on Twitter.

In interview with Al-Ahram Arabic back in December 2012, theatre director Galal El-Sharkawy declared that theatre is constantly deteriorating. "But this is due to the Mubarak regime; what we witness today is a continuity of ending the arts in Egypt," he said.

Artist Mohamed Abla believes that Islamist rule by nature is a threat to the arts. "Islamists see the arts as the work of infidels — an imitation of the West that has nothing to do with the Islamic nature of Egypt," he told Ahram Online. "The only response is for artists to take their art to the street and never stop."

Bad management

Another main obstacle that the Egyptian arts face is poor management by the Muslim Brotherhood regime. "This regime lacks managerial skills, and by default it shows in arts and culture," painter Adel El-Siwi told Ahram Online.

"The Ministry of Culture today, unlike under the Mubarak regime, has been cutting on arts and culture funding and support as if arts and culture are no longer on the government's agenda," El-Siwi declared.

"This in addition to their failure in managing economic policies. The nation is collapsing totally and is taking arts and culture with it," he continued.

Besides challenges by Islamist ideology, the culture field still suffers a lack of creativity. According to Hanan Abdullah, this lack is witnessed especially in the film industry. "I am not in a position to give a general statement on the entire arts scene of Egypt. However, throughout the past two years, and especially in the film industry, I can tell you there isn't much progress and development."

"Following the revolution, those who had been struggling to get their work out managed to do so after the ousting of the Mubarak regime, yet film industry as a whole did not flourish." Looking back on the past two years, Abdullah believes that even the topics chosen in the industry have constantly revolved around the same subject: corruption under the Mubarak era.

To some, film and television benefited from the revolution, diverting attention to corruption under Mubarak and his police state. Recalling successful Egyptian films since the revolution, most look to documentary films recording the Egyptian revolution: 18 Days, Reporting a Revolution, Eyes of Freedom … Street of Death, among others. Big productions didn't make a mark over the course of the last two years, except for Baad El-Mawkea (After the Battle) and Saa' We Nos (An Hour and a Half), which also reflected themes of corruption popular in the public mindset.

Many television series explored corruption within the police forces, while others tackled poverty that doomed the Egyptian youth, like Taraf Talet (Third Party), El-Baltagy (The Thug), and Mewaten X (Citizen X). The three tackle corruption within the Ministry of Interior and its relation to thugs on the streets, and also how poverty becomes a means by which the state controls the people and maintains its power.

"There is no diversity, and from what I see there is no improvement. Relatively, the state of the arts prior and post-revolution remains the same," Abdullah says.

More of the same

For his part, actor El-Halafawy does not recognise progress in the film and television business. "Those successful works are very minor and do not reflect on reality at all. The whole environment is so corrupt."

Young filmmaker Karim El-Adl, a descendent of the filmmaking El-Adl family, tells Ahram Online: "We didn't have arts during the Mubarak era to begin with, but after the revolution nothing profound was presented." He added: "We have to build up a solid educated environment to create arts, and this environment still does not exist."

However, young director Nader Seif El-Din thinks otherwise. "There may be little variety and no profound creation when it comes to arts in general, but one cannot neglect those few examples in film and television … that should be motivational for us to build upon," he told Ahram Online.

"The Mubarak regime left us with nothing so we have to build the nation from scratch," he continued, pointing out that the challenge that the art field faces today is based in ignorance and illiteracy, which have become tools of censorship replacing direct control under the former regime.

The film and television industry aside, Egyptian jazz icon Fathy Salama points to one important element in a complicated equation that returns us to the general state of education.

"We live in a depressive atmosphere that doesn't allow any artistic creation. On the other hand, I see in the music scene many opportunists who have ridden the wave of revolution to rise to stardom and consider themselves revolutionary and underground musicians," Salama said referring singer Ramy Essam and Cairokee music group.

"How embarrassing it is that the great revolution of 25 January can be documented with music that doesn't represent Egypt?" he asked.

Salama points out that there is no development in music without a profound educational background. He critically condemns the music of Ramy Essam, who is labeled "the singer of the revolution." "I understand that he was imprisoned and brutally attacked by the army during the revolution, but this does not make him a musician. He did not educate himself and refuses to do so when I encouraged him to," he says.

To many, Egyptian music flourished over the past two years with the music of young generation groups like Cairokee. But Salama thinks otherwise: "On Cairokee, although they are successful, I find it shameful that the revolution is documented to American rock music that does not represent Egyptian heritage."

But when commenting on singer and composer Hamza Namera, Salama says: "He has good potential, but he remains far behind in representing Egyptian culture and music."

"We need to build everything when we speak of arts and culture in Egypt. Yes, Mubarak and his regime left us all illiterate and uneducated. To become a true musician, you must learn music, and to excel you use what you learn and modernise it a bit. Talent is not enough," Salama explains.

"This young generation lack musical education that made the iconic music figures of Egypt." Salama says the failure of the music scene in Egypt is clear at times of protest when most songs played come from the 1950s, "when true musicians were born."

Education is key

The importance of arts education triggers anger among visual artists as well. "The visual arts have been lacking proper education for the past 40 years. What is presented today only relates to the revolution, which I even consider very poorly discussed, and doesn't qualify as documenting the reality of it," artist Omar El-Fayoumi says.

"We are moving backwards and not forwards at all … We speak of a revolution that is far from completion and we have no proper educational base to document it … Visual arts are in a terrible state today," El-Fayoumi asserts.

He also condemns a lack of creativity, saying: "I haven't seen any development — not among the youth or the older generation — throughout the past two years."

His colleagues Abla and El-Siwi, on the contrary, see the visual arts scene in Egypt on the rise. "I can't ignore this new generation that captured the revolution as they witnessed it through exhibitions and graffiti," Abla tells Ahram Online. "For the first time in many years, all eyed this young generation with their new ideas," he says.

El-Siwi also praises the rise of youth art in the visual arts field. "We have seen a new wave of young artists, especially in photography and graffiti," he told Ahram Online.

"Youth have proved to be connected to society and present it vividly through their work … a concept killed by the Mubarak regime," El-Siwi said.

Amid lacking education and creativity, and political and social instability, the Egyptian arts are in danger two years after the January 25 Revolution. Where they will go from here under Muslim Brotherhood rule remains to be seen. Few are optimistic. Most are fearful.

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