Cairo's Goethe Institute hosts talk on art and politics

Monica Elashy, Thursday 30 May 2013

Panel of artists and experts discussed the relationship between funding, politics and art in post-revolutionary Egypt

Photo: from the cover of a booklet issued by Goethe Institute Cairo 'Transformation & Partnership'

A talk on cultural policies during transitions held at the Goethe Institute in downtown Cairo on Wednesday evening covered an array of topics related to the nexus of arts, politics, and funding.

An audience of about 50 people, many artists, was in attendance. The panel was introduced by Gabriele Becker, regional director of the Goethe Institute in the Middle East and North Africa, with Mohamed El-Shahed as moderator.

El-Shahed is studying for a doctorate in Middle East Studies at New York University, focusing on urban planning and architecture in Egypt.

The panel included Mona Abaza, sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, Bassem Yousry, video artist and experimental filmmaker, and actress and artist Zeinab Magdy.

The talk started with El-Shahed discussing how art and culture funding has changed in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. He pointed to the positive elements, citing the raised interest in the region in general and particularly in its creative realities.

He spoke about a lecture he was invited to give in June 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland, talking about public space, arts, culture and politics in Egypt.

"I was surprised that they had a blind spot to certain things and that I had to explain that, yes, there are squares in Cairo, that there were protests before 2011, and yes, there were interesting things before, but the Zurich audiences weren’t paying attention to these issues before,” El-Shahed elaborated.

Bassem Yousry talked about stereotypes, saying that currently the revolution has become the mainstream commodity and the tool that everyone uses to get funding for his or her craft. He clarified that it wasn’t reasonable to manoeuvre around one’s values and identity.

“One should create the art then look for funding, rather than do whatever to please the funder to get the money,” Yousry underlined.  

Zeinab Magdy talked about artists’ fear before the revolution. Although the fear might be still there, in a different form, Magdy said that the revolutionary events triggered something within and allowed artists to express their views differently.

“What is revolutionary art?” asked Magdy. “Is it art that is about revolution or is it art that brings revolution in form or content?”

“By showing to the audience the revolution only, people throwing rocks and protesting, one risks infusing people's minds with stereotypes. Accordingly, the viewers generate a stereotype that Egyptians only protest. As follows, people won’t want to watch a play or a movie about Egypt anymore,” said Magdy.

“I think regarding the economic aspect of the revolution it’s completely different than what’s been imported to European theatre or film; they have reduced it to throwing rocks, chanting, violence in the streets. The core of the matter is lost in these spaces and performances,” said El-Shahed.

Mona Abaza referred to the article she wrote for Ahram Online, ‘Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring back in September 2011, saying that it was written out of frustration, but highlighted a main point, namely inequality.

“Whenever I discuss foreign funds or the new projects, my artists friends mention the word quick cash (sell your soul to the devil) or what’s known as sabooba in Egyptian dialect. They always have fights or conflicts around this word,” said Abaza.

Abaza added that there is also a myth about foreign funding, an expression that was regularly used by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). "In the end, since this isn’t a transparent society…we only know about the funds that have been going into politics and the army."

The discussion was the first in the series of talks to be held by the Goethe Institute, aiming at exploring the Egyptian and the Middle Eastern cultural scene and the funding pouring into it.

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