Artists, musicians, dancers, filmmakers and many others working in the cultural sector have been significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which has undoubtedly shut down many sources of income.
Since the closure of venues and the cancellation of events in March to halt the spread of the virus, the cultural sector has been suffering from a lack of revenue, causing economic difficulties that might lead to problems in all walks of life.
Though many Arab ministries of culture including in Egypt have launched initiatives to digitise cultural content and make it available and even free to people online, many artists are still suffering. This has led some independent enterprises to think of solutions that could help out the cultural sector.
“The world is much closer together now than ever before,” commented the founders of Basita, a cultural online venue based in Dubai in the UAE, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “There are no geographical boundaries anymore and no language boundaries,” they explained, adding that the site’s name Basita, meaning “make it simple,” was also designed to signal a desire to facilitate the ecosystem of the global cultural sector.
Basita is one of the first cultural online venues in the Middle East, and it started streaming performances at the beginning of August. It was founded by Reem Kassem, Emad Hani and Adnan Kamal, all from different countries in the Arab world but all sharing a love of culture.
The site offers audiences the pleasure of watching online content through an engaging interface that can make them feel they are at a real concert. “You choose your concert; you book your ticket; and you choose the seat and the time of the venue you want to attend,” Reem Kassem told the Weekly.
Basita can thus help to mitigate the current circumstances that have affected the cultural sector not only in the Arab world but also worldwide. The cultural sector in many countries has been one of the worst affected by Covid-19, and there have been real dangers that it could be weakened as a result of the mayhem. It was with this in mind that the site’s co-founders thought of the idea of Basita.
“We wanted to build a sustainable platform that would allow both artists and audiences to enjoy cultural performances in an organised and legal way,” Kassem said. “The Internet is overcrowded with chaotic free content, whereas what is really needed is content that is well-organised and well-received.”
The co-founders wanted to create a safe platform that strictly observes copyright laws such that people cannot easily download content illegally or invade others’ privacy. The site’s design also makes the user experience friendly for artists who wish to see their work displayed and audiences who want to watch a particular show. “We like to do it simply in every way we can. The user experience should be simple, as well as the design,” said Emad Hani, a Basita co-founder.
“Basita offers platforms for master classes, workshops and theatrical and musical performances. It is a virtual tool for everything. There is standup comedy and other forms of comedy too,” he added.
Ahmed Nabil, a filmmaker and director of the Cinema School at the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria, is one early artist to have participated on Basita with his documentary film “17 Fouad Street”. The film talks about one of the oldest shoemakers in Alexandria, an embodiment of the old cosmopolitan city with many stories to tell.
“It is an excellent idea to launch Basita and very good that it was born at this time. It reminds us that there are many creative things that we can still do when the world goes into lockdown,” Nabil said.
It can also provide artists with an income. “During the lockdown, many people went for online shopping, so why not buy cultural products online too,” he asked. When his film went online, Nabil received comments from people across the world, including from some who used to live in Alexandria and could relate to some of the places mentioned.
“The platform allows us to showcase materials that were old and almost forgotten, but for different people,” he added. Basita also allows Arab and Egyptian artists to reach out to other artists across the globe. “In real life, we would never have encountered artists in Spain, India, the UK, Cambodia, and so on in the way we have been able to through Basita.”
INTERNATIONAL REACH: On the European level, things have not been different to what artists in the Arab world have been experiencing. In Spain, some major organisations have been streaming productions for free during the lockdown, for example, including the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Mercat de les Flores dance theatre in Barcelona.
“However, this is not sustainable for the arts community,” said Jaime Trancoso, founder of the Flamenco Agency, one of the largest agencies for flamenco dance in Spain and the rest of Europe.
“We need to monetise the digital side of the performing arts for the artists. There are a few platforms that are doing well, especially in the flamenco field. After the lockdown, culture is again back on track, but still with lots of unfair limitations and much more social-distancing than the transportation or restaurant sectors,” he added.
“The Flamenco Ballet in Barcelona will be showing its performance ‘Flamenco Reborn’ on Basita on 7 September. It is the first time that we have done a virtual theatre experience, one of the greatest contributions to the performing arts this year. We need to search for new opportunities to monetise concerts and cultural activities,” Trancoso told the Weekly.
“It is also bringing new audiences for festivals and venues and setting up new goals and aims for the future,” he commented. “We are all discovering the beneficial aspects of online theatre. The entire digital world has been pushed forwards because of the current situation, and we need to be open to the new opportunities that this crisis is creating to continue learning.”
What could be better than listening to your own music at home, similarly asked Supriya Nagarajan, an Indian-born musician based in the UK, in an interview with the Weekly. Nagarajan is the founder and CEO of Manasamitra, a UK-based arts organisation with thousands of followers and fans globally.
As an Indian musician living in the UK, she has collaborated with more than 40 artists over the years. She said that collaboration with artists from different parts of the globe was also what the world wanted nowadays.
“As a creative artist, you look for ways to present your art in an original way. We have been going more online and live. Instead of having, for example, 500 people who are attending a concert, we have more than 15,000 viewers,” she said.
As the Sun Set was a unique piece made during the lockdown in the UK. It was premiered on Basita on 4 August where it will be in place until December. The piece is a real example of how artists can work together in which Nagarajan uses her Carnatic (South Indian) voice to capture and respond to the intricate soundscape created by UK sound artist Duncan Chapman and Belgian flautist Karin De Fleyt.
Of course, artists miss real life performances, which Nagarajan describes as “unbeatable moments,” despite the new possibilities opened up online. But “people can view art in different ways. Some of my biggest fans have come from people who enjoy my music while they are resting at home. It has also meant that I have reached people in Canada and Australia and other parts of the globe,” she added.
“Through Basita, I will also reach the Arab world. There are musicians there whom I admire and want to collaborate with, especially from Egypt. If any musician wants to reach out and collaborate with me, I will be delighted,” Nagarajan concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly