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Harnessing the security vacuum, artists rode 2013 work into public space

Ahram Online highlights five 2013 unique art projects that engaged passersby in the public spaces of Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta and Ras Al-Barr

Rowan El Shimi, Sunday 29 Dec 2013
Damietta Face to Face Egypt Art
Theatre street performance in Ras El-Barr (Photo: Courtesy of Mahatat for Contemporary Arts)

As Egypt seals its third year since the onset of the revolution in 2011, questions of access to public space, rights and regulations continue to loom in the air.

The country's major cities have witnessed an influx of occupation of public space: from protests supporting and decrying different things, and street vendors gradually creeping in on various corners of main streets, to artists not only spray-painting walls with politically charged graffiti, but also engaging the public with music, dance, performance arts and even exhibitions.

As the security vacuum deepened, so did the temporary freedom allowing Egypt's artists to leave the spaces that previously confined their arts to closed rooms and take their works instead onto the streets. While this current freedom on Egypt's streets may be perceived as chaos -- and perhaps it is -- artists have certainly continued to take advantage of it in 2013 with art projects that have engaged the public and redefined public space as an expression front.

From the large array of projects, Ahram Online selects five -- in Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta and Ras Al-Barr -- that have provided a unique interaction between artists and the public.

Mini-Mobile Concert: Alexandrian musicians took alternative music to the streets

The brainchild of Alexandrian musician Ramez Ashraf, Mini-Mobile Concert takes music to the streets of Alexandria. The initiative started with 15 performances in 2012, and expanded in 2013 to feature nearly 25 performances in various spots within the Mediterranean city during which a number of musicians presented alternative music to the public.

According to Ashraf, the purpose of the initiative is not merely to bring a different sound to the city, but also to create a bridge between independent musicians and the public -- many of whom harbour an interest in the music but have no idea that these musicians exist, or where to find their performances.

When Ahram Online visited Alexandria in May to attend and film a performance by violinist Ayman Asfour on the crowded Safeya Zaghloul and Fouad street intersection, an interesting interaction took place between Ashraf and the police. A police car had approached while preparations were underway for the concert, only to be presented with a Mini-Mobile Concert flyer by Ashraf who invited the policeman to attend the show, which he did. As another police car approached during the performance, the first policeman was the one to explain the situation and both eventually stayed on to enjoy the music. 

Ministry of Culture Sit-In: June protests and art on Zamalek's Shagaret Al-Dorr St

While Mini-Mobile Concert focused on bridging the gap between artists and the public, the artistic events that took place in front of the Ministry of Culture sit-in throughout the month of June had a more political flavour.

The May 2013 government reshuffle by then Muslim Brotherhood-appointed Prime Minister Hisham Qandil produced the Brotherhood-affiliated Alaa Abdel-Aziz as culture minister – whom numerous figures in the cultural field deemed unfit for the post. 

Following his dismissal of Ines Abdel-Dayem, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, as well as other heads of state-affiliated culture sector operations, a number of strikes and protests by artists were followed by their march to the Ministry of Culture, located in the upscale Zamalek neighbourhood, where on 5 June they declared a sit-in until the minister's removal.

As the occupation of the ministry lasted a month, only ending with former president Mohamed Morsi's ouster on 3 July, artists soon began staging concerts, poetry readings and other artistic activities to while away the evenings. Most notable of those events was the ballet Zorba, which featured dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in several short unprecedented performances that not only took this fine art to the street, but always ended in a massive dance-fest engaging audiences to the tunes of the Greek music.

Face to Face: Mahatat engaged artists in Damietta and Ras Al-Barr through workshops and street performances

With a mandate to bring arts to public space, Mahatat for contemporary art's 2012 project "Shaware3na" featured several performances and displays of art in Cairo and Giza in squares and on public transportation.

In 2013, however, Mahatat took their next project Face to Face to the Nile Delta city of Damietta. Bringing facilitators from Cairo, the initiative focused on working with local Damietta artists in the fields of documentary photography, visual arts and theatre who have limited access to the city's government-run cultural spaces, and no alternative independent spaces where they can showcase their work.

The workshops produced an exhibition of the photo-documentary works which were displayed on the street. Also produced was a play dubbed "Change the Name of the Medicine," performed several times in both Damietta and the seaside Ras Al-Barr town in spite of the constraints imposed by the volatile political events that gripped the country during the display of the project's final outcomes in June and July.

Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival: dance and visual arts in the heart of Cairo

In its second edition, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) set Downtown Cairo abuzz with an array of artists hosted from around the world to showcase their installations, performances, films and theatre pieces.

An indispensable component of D-CAF is "Urban Visions," during which the festival invites dancers to showcase their projects on different Downtown Cairo streets, alleyways and even store fronts.

One of this year's notable performances was Traffic by renowned choreographer Tomeo Verges, who cooperated with Egyptian dancers Mohamed Fouad, Sherine Hegazy, Raafat Batoumy and Ahmed El-Gendi for its realisation. The dancers, presenting the performance in a store front, among other places, mimicked gestures particular to traffic policemen as they maundered through miniature toy cars.

Dutch The100Hands also presented dance on the street at the entrance of the Kodak building on Adly Street and on the pedestrian Bursa (The Stock Market) Area in collaboration with Egyptian dancers.

This year D-CAF's visual arts programme, coordinated by Medrar for Contemporary Art, took visual arts away from the confinement of gallery spaces and into the streets.

Among their projects was "Augmented Airspace", by Egyptian artist Dia Hamed and Spanish artist Lot Amoros, which was displayed in a garage space next to Bursa and featured a small helicopter which flew over the area with a camera. The helicopter gave passerbys an interesting view of the street from above and, as it intersected certain banners hung from windows, new icons appeared that the artists picked out.

Another project was "SMSlingshot" presented by German artist collective VR/URBAN. The installation, displayed for several days in Bursa during the festival, presented a slingshot consisting of a keypad on which messages were to be typed, aimed at a virtual display on the wall, and "fired" to appear.

The final public display by the end of D-CAF was visual artist Ganzeer and media artist Yasmine Elayat's project "Face the Vitrine". The artists used sketched portraits turned into store-front sized visual projections of local volunteers and historical figures. The projection's eyes were programmed to follow passerbys, initiating a conversation on privacy in the city's public space.

Noon Creative Enterprise: Theatre sketches on sexual harassment in Cairo's metro

Commissioned by UN Women and operating under the umbrella of Noon Creative Enterprise, the Hara TV team staged 14 days of undercover theatrical performances on the Cairo metro discussing sexual harassment.

The four actors ride in a carriage and begin to discuss among themselves a sexual harassment incident involving one of the girls. The remaining actors are divided between those who encourage her to stand up for herself, and others who advise her to remain silent. The performance is carried out in a slightly high pitch, with the actors prompting other metro passengers to contribute their opinions to the conversation.

When Ahram Online rode the metro with the team during one of their performances in February, one woman suggested she should have caused a scene; another man congratulated her on ignoring him and getting off the bus, while another younger man suggested she should have asked another man on the bus to confront her aggressor.

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