Reviving Revolution: The role of art in an uncertain Egypt

By Deena Adel

CAIRO – On a subway platform, a father turned to his son as he gazed at a portrait hanging on the wall and offered a lesson in the history of Egypt’s continuing revolution.

“This man died for your freedom,” the father said on a recent afternoon, as he pointed to the painting of a man with dark-rimmed glasses, unruly hair and a bright smile.

The painting is of Ahmed Bassiouny, a 32-year-old artist and teacher who was killed after filming mass protests in Tahrir Square on January 27 and 28. It is on display along with tens of other paintings, photographs and caricatures included in Egypt’s first-ever subway gallery in May.

This was a brief, anonymous teaching moment between a father and son on a subway, but it is reflective of a larger national dialogue about art and the role it is playing in Egypt’s still unfinished revolution.

One of more than 800 who died in the uprising, Bassiouny is viewed as a martyr by a generation of young Egyptian artists devoting their lives to building the groundwork for a new, democratic society.

“Ahmed was one of Egypt’s most notable young contemporary artists,” says Shady El Noshokaty, an art professor and a close friend of the martyred artist. “He pioneered the education of digital art sound in Egypt and created programs that gave students a chance to acquire creative skills.”

“Egypt lost a true talent,” Noshokaty tells GlobalPost.

Organized by the Revolution Artists Union (RAU), the metro exhibition attempted to seed cultural awareness among unassuming commuters.

The RAU was founded by 21 artists during the 18-day sit-in that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. The artists declare that they are seeking an “ongoing cultural revolution.”

They argue that a political revolution cannot succeed unless accompanied by intellectual change. Arts and culture could be the remedy for Egypt’s current woes, they believe, as citizens begin to realize that change is not achieved by overthrowing governments; it is achieved by changing mindsets.

“Today, the union includes over 400 artists, filmmakers, musicians and poets,” 19-year-old Mostafa Antar proclaims proudly.

The RAU encourages Egyptian citizens to express their revolutionary spirit through artistic mediums. Meeting once a week in public places, RAU-affiliated artists discuss how best to spread awareness about art as a form of self-expression.

Antar is a commerce student at Menoufia University, and one of the founding members whose mission is to encourage citizens to discover different platforms of self-expression. The RAU found a staggering number of people who had never considered art as an outlet. But members of the union say they were pleasantly surprised to discover so much raw talent among so many as soon as they were provided an opportunity.

Mohamed El Sawy, founder of El Sawy Culture Wheel, points out that art in Egypt had been viewed as a luxury that the average citizen cannot afford to care about.

“People think art is for the elite,” he says, shaking his head. “Everyone should feel like they can speak their mind and express themselves.” He blames the former regime for neglecting arts and culture in Egypt.

Sawy believes the biggest obstacle to nurturing art is Egypt’s notoriously deficient and stifling education system, and he recognizes the essential need for expanding the practice of art in schools.

Hossam Nassar, adviser to the Minister of Culture, echoes the same sentiment, and also blames the education system for producing individuals who are “unable to appreciate art and lack refined taste.”

“Art education is essential,” he says. “It allows individuals to appreciate beauty, creativity, and it cultivates imagination.”

Research has shown that art education has great benefits on students in their intellectual, personal, and cognitive skills. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation about visual arts found that it “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” which these art activists say is exactly the kind of adjustment Egyptians need right now.

After 30 years of a one-man rule under Hosni Mubarak, the “oneness” concept still prevails in Egypt, says El Sawy. Many perceive the current situation as either black or white, unable to grasp the numerous shades of grey and the colorful winds that accompany change.

“Art will allow people to correct that concept and understand that there are many different points of view,” El Sawy agrees.

“After the revolution, we discovered the great diversity in Egypt,” says Nassar, who is also a poet and a writer.

Nassar believes there is a power struggle among the different classes and ethnic and religious factions of Egyptian society, each trying to establish its culture as more superior.

He adds, “We live in a democracy now. It is our duty as intellectuals and artists to raise awareness about cultivating different cultures, as well as finding common ground that unites us all.”

More Egyptian artists are recognizing their duty to raise awareness about different cultures and the idea of freedom of expression, a concept that was not exactly encouraged during the Mubarak era.

One such initiative is Mashrou’ Al Mareekh (The Mars Project) which promotes self-expression amongst Egyptians of all cultures. Through ‘open mic’ events around Egypt and giving amateur talents the opportunity to take the stage, this simple yet powerful initiative redefines social obstacles and transcends customary boundaries.

Young artist Mariam El-Quessny founded the project two years ago in Cairo, but has started going to other cities in recent months. It was surprising to find that the talents and creativity found in the metropolitan, “cultured” city of Cairo paled in comparison to those in smaller, rural cities.

“People in other cities are so much cooler than the people in Cairo,” exclaims Quessny. “They’re less inhibited, and they have raw talent that is not categorized. You can see their true essence.”

Providing platforms for artistic expression allows tolerance and coexistence to flourish. This is when arts become more than means of individual self-expression and transcend into a catalyst for social change.

Utilizing their talents, artists are starting different initiatives to get the word out. The group Mossireen is an example of filmmakers, artists and activists using the powerful tool of video and visuals to reach the public and educate them about citizen journalism, which tends to be more reliable than government media.

The group has compiled an archive of footage of the revolution, mostly taken by citizens using cell phones, to be stored in a public place where anyone can access it and use it. “The best way to describe it is ‘civic media’,” explains actor Khalid Abdalla, one of the founding members of Mossireen. Abdalla is an Egyptian-British movie star who gained international fame after starring in several critically acclaimed movies, including The Kite Runner and United 93.

One of Mossireen’s most powerful projects was ‘Cinema Tahrir.’ During the July 8 sit-in in Tahrir Square, protesters were delighted to find a screen set up on which clips from the revolution were shown nightly.

Hundreds gathered around to watch protests footage that evoked strong emotions. “It would suddenly remind them of something they had forgotten,” explains Abdalla. “Or something they had not seen before, because it was not shown on government media.”

Mossireen also offers training for amateurs on filmmaking techniques, so they can create their own videos and tell their own stories.

Artist Jasmina Metwaly, who is part of Mossireen, is struggling to do just that. In a discussion with GlobalPost reporting fellows about the role of art in the revolution, she voiced her own frustration with her films, as she realizes that the films she creates have not created any substantive change. She, like many artists, feels frustrated by a sense that the revolution may be stalling, or faltering.

But in the end, Quessny says, one important role of art is to start a dialogue.

“Art is about poking different points of views,” argues Quessny. “It’s not about giving answers, it’s about raising questions and offering a different way to look at things.”