The cultural playgrounds of 2014: Entries and exits

Heba El-Sherif , Monday 22 Dec 2014

A look at cultural locations that opened, ones that closed and ones we think excelled in 2014

ROOM Art Space, Dance Studio & Cafe (Photo: Courtesy of Room)

Egypt’s cultural scene has seen an outpouring of unorthodox spaces in the last several years, initiatives that are new to both the artistic playground and audiences alike.

And while the year 2014 encompasses numerous newcomers as well as a few sad exits, it is the commotion itself that deserves the attention.

The profit-certain coffee shop-type

For some time now, Egypt’s chief cities have seen a birth of art spaces hugged by coffee lovers and a growing café-goer community. In 2014 alone, central Cairo welcomed Kafein, ROOM and Falak.

Since its opening in March, Kafein has swung the spotlight on visual arts through a range of exhibitions, the most recent of which is a suite of photos by Mohamed Elshahed titled Cairo Past Futures, with profits going to fund the upcoming issues of Cairobserver. In nine months, Kafein amassed over 20 thousand followers and hosted six events, including Elshahed’s.

With a similar set-up, ROOM opened its doors in August and has since held an average of seven events per month, with eight planned for December alone, a considerable leap when compared to other spaces in this category.

It’s not just quantity that sets this space apart; it seems that the organisers are adamant about bringing something new to the playground. Their events, many the result of collaboration, are fresh and oftentimes experimental. The list includes: open rehearsals, a DJ-ing workshop, a creative writing marathon and an improvisation session featuring both music and dance.

With a slightly smaller following, Falak is identified by its founders as “a bookstore, an art gallery and an exhibition of a large variety of original handmade crafts… also an open space for workshops meetings, film screenings, music concerts and more.”

Inaugurated in January, the space hosted a wide variety of events to date, including film screenings, musical evenings, poetry recitals and book signings.

Borrowing from the philosophies behind Downtown’s Kunst Gallery and Cafe, Bikya Book Store and the more popular Zamalek-based Sufi, are spaces that strive to create a balance between generating sustainable income and offering cultural output. The latter however, has proved to be more difficult as the layout poses a challenge for curators. Moreover, people visiting these spaces have varying intentions; some are there to eat and some will only show up for an event in which their friends are taking part, a reality that often herds an incoherent audience. What has benefited the creators of ROOM is that they dedicated a ‘room’ within the larger space solely for the purpose of hosting their performances.

Stuttering spaces

A considerable number of spaces swept the scene following the political upheavals of 2011. As some were forced shut for different reasons, two have managed to sputter forward.

Cimatheque “is a space built for filmmakers and film-lovers alike, as a place for watching films and discussing them, for learning about cinema and creating it, that believes in the importance of preserving film heritage and looks to the future through supporting alternative film culture,” according to its website.

Although it has been under construction since 2012, it has managed to remain on the surface of the scene by hosting a number of screenings as well as workshops. Cimatheque even developed a blog that chronicles construction efforts, a spirited gesture that shows their keenness on keeping their followers looped in with their plans.

Meanwhile, Doum Cultural Foundation, which was officially inaugurated in September 2013, has recently relocated its center of activities. Previously operating from an exquisite villa in Agouza, formerly the home of Egypt’s renowned architect Ramses Wissa Wassif, Doum now hosts a range of events at their newly acquired space in the Kodak building on Adly Street in Cairo’s downtown. 

Last March, Doum organised a storytelling festival in the southern city of Qena, gathering over 20 troupes from across Egypt’s governorates for a three-day event that was supported by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces.

On the governmental front, Egypt’s cultural palaces continue to be a pesky issue to discuss.

Earlier this year, Saad Abdel-Rahman, the head of the General Authority for Cultural Palaces, told an Ahram Online reporter that Egypt has recently reopened cultural palaces in Assiut, Hurghada, Banha, Port Said and a number of houses in Sinai, admitting to the large number of palaces that remain closed or under renovation.

“My annual budget is only LE60 million, while the budget needed to renovate the old palaces could be LE54 million for just one building,” Abdel-Rahman said. 

The obstacles go beyond closures and ongoing renovation efforts, however. 

During Doum's storytelling festival, The Cultural Palace in Qena hosted the largest number of performances, but Doum brought in the equipment needed to aid the stage with light and sound, which at the time was donated by Hassan El-Geretly, because the Palace had none. 

With the state of cultural palaces perpetually in question, for Mohamed El-Tawil, the head of the media department at the Visual Art Authority, which operates under the Ministry of Culture, 2014 was a good year.

“We reopened part of Museum of Modern Art which presents a panorama of the works of most important contemporary visual artists in Egypt,” he told Ahram Online, adding that the authority also reopened the Mahmoud Said Museum Center in Alexandria.

The revival of the National Theatre after it was closed for six years, is one of the most important achievements within the Ministry of Culture's sphere.

Wekalet Behna (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

Alexandria in focus

Away from the capital, since last summer, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) Arts Centre stepped in as a dynamic cultural player. The centre hosted a considerable number of events this year, a lauded leap in comparison to past years. Among the most notable events was a concert held by renowned Lebanese composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalife who together with his two sons, Rami and Bachar, provided concertgoers with a memorable evening in Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park.

BA's summer festival, which ran through the sweltering heat of August, brought fan-favorites including Cairokee, Massar Egbari, Black Theama, Dina El-Wedidi and Mohamed Mohsen alongside older generation’s favorite Les Petits Chats to the library's open air theatre and main auditorium.

Their film program also stood out by screening two important scores this year: CROP, a documentary that examines the role played by state-sponsored images throughout the events of 2011, and the Sarah Ishaq’s Oscar-nominated Karama Has No Walls. In celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of the world's most renowned film artist and the centenary of creation of the Tramp, the Arts Centre screened four iconic features by Charlie Chaplin.

Meanwhile, Wekalet Behna opened its doors in March, after renovation efforts that had kicked off in December 2012. The former office space of Behna Films Selections, an Alexandria-based production house that boomed between the 1930s and 1950s, inaugurated a space for contemporary audio and visual arts.

Wekalet Behna was brought to life by Gudran for Arts and Development and Behna Film Selections’ heir Basile Behna. It has since hosted a range of workshops, screenings, exhibitions and discussions.

Looming uncertainty

As the government is determined to pass an NGO law that critics regard as stifling to civil society, cultural organisations across the country prepare to face uncertainty. When Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy announced a freeze on all their activities in Egypt in November this year, the message echoed even louder.

Since its inception, Al-Mawred has been a powerhouse in the Arab World, fueling numerous projects in the cultural arena including the catalogue of festivals hosted by El-Genaina Theatre, funding body Abbara, CirCairo and Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Art School. The foundation is also one of the chief actors working towards drafting a cultural policy for Egypt. Its absence from the scene will leave a void many are uncertain can be healed in the near future.

Despite a shaky future ahead of Egypt’s cultural scene, there is some good news. Alwan w Awtar, an NGO employing informal education to develop children and young adults in Moqattam, recently regained a portion of the space they used to occupy, after authorities ordered them to evacuate last June. For the past 10 years, Alwan w Awtar curated a range of activities that build character and promote artistic expression.

Another worthy entry to Cairo's cultural map is the music movement Sofar, which challenges the classic set-up of a concert, hosting musical acts in low-key locations that serve as unofficial venues. As the concept of space is revisited, cultural events in Egypt may be propelled into an unknown yet very exciting sea.  

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