Monday, 18 June 2012

Guest post: “The underground voice”, by Reem Kassem (Egypt)

Reem Kassem is a very determined young woman. Approximately one month after last year´s revolution in Egypt, when the authorities´ main concerns were peace and order in the streets, she managed to persuade the military in Alexandria to allow her to go ahead with an open-air music festival, that brought together dozens and dozens of volunteers, from people painting the stage in one of the city´s abandoned parks to the musicians who performed. I could listen to her telling the story of her dealings with the military again and again. She hasn´t stopped since and I am sure her role will be decisive in the future of the cultural sector in Egypt. mv

In Egypt, it has always seemed that the only thing capable of bringing people together is football. Whenever the national team is in action, everyone feels the same way. Young people gather in coffee shops, others get together at home and others just set up screens outside so that people can watch the game in the street. Change only happens when people cry out and when there is a collective need for it. The Egyptian people were looking for other ways of gathering together, for new tools through which they could express themselves and engage in meaningful dialogue.

Start with Yourself Festival: Exchange to Change (Photo: AGORA)

This is where the cultural sector came in and provided cultural and artistic activities for the general public. In recent years, there have not been enough cultural centers in Egypt and the activities they offer have failed to meet the needs of the Egyptian society. Inevitably, cultural activities are very much centered in Cairo, followed by Alexandria, while the rest of the country is totally ignored. On top of this, traditional forms of cultural activities held in concert halls or conference centers failed to attract new audiences – it’s always the same old faces.

There are two layers in the Egyptian cultural sector: the government-led and the independent. The first is represented by the Ministry of Culture and its associated entities; the second one is the underground scene. Almost all regions in Egypt have national theaters, opera houses, cultural palaces and official dance and music groups of the Ministry. The underground scene, which emerged in 2006 and grew rapidly from 2009 to 2011, is represented by young emerging and young professional artists in all disciplines who are not financed by the Ministry of Culture and are therefore not controlled by the government. They perform mainly in private or in foreign cultural centers and, to some extent, they are the counterparts of the NGOs and non-governmental initiatives in Egypt.

Start with Yourself Festival: Social Change (Photo: AGORA)

Because underground artists were successful in providing what official artists could not, either through their performances in non-governmental cultural centers or through the social media, they have gained a large number of fans who believe in alternative arts. For example, the band Massar Egbari (meaning “compulsory road”) performs songs about social problems, such as unemployment, traffic chaos and bad living conditions. This band, and others with the same mission, engages with the public not just in an artist-audience relationship, but in a kind of connection where the audience can use the band to discharge its negative energy and recharge with hope. The audience feels comfortable communicating its problems through the band‘s songs and music. This is how the independent layer of the cultural sector started influencing the country’s youth; mainly through the underground scene. It has therefore become an urgent priority to fulfil the need for more and more cultural events, theatres, venues and projects to meet the growing needs of the people.

In 2009, artists and cultural operators noticed the growing community desire for public events and street art. Cultural managers started their fight to get permits. There were many attempts to organize public space events that were either hindered for security reasons or stopped in the planning stage by policy makers. The process ended with what has become known as the “Cultural Revolution”. When the protests started on 25th January, a new window opened, giving artists a sign that they should take the lead. In less than five days, songs were composed, poetry was written, theatre productions were initiated, photography exhibitions were prepared and short films were made. Stages were built in public spaces for artists to give revolutionary artistic performances. As a result, the underground scene officially became the ideal representation of contemporary culture and, in a way, served to shape the new cultural policies.

During the past year, independent cultural entities have been very active. Many of them are newly established with a mission oriented towards public space and street art. The creativity to bring the arts to non-traditional spaces has astonished the Egyptian public and has changed a lot the way they perceive things. Funding organizations have dedicated special attention to projects working on engaging new audiences and promoting free access to culture. The last thing we need at the moment is to treat the public as mere spectators. The current phase of political transition is a time for participation and social change and the cultural institutions should be taking the same line.

Start with Yourself Festival: Dream... Achieve... Change  (Photo: AGORA)

Art in the public space can be perceived as a reflection of our identity and collective culture. It has the highest potential to celebrate the diversity within a society and strengthen its sense of belonging. However, in the past years there was hardly any public engagement or interest and so the separation between the individual and the community have increased. The current cultural realities in Egypt are changing with the use of public space by independent artists, the reinvention of public space by multi-arts festivals and the presentation of new art forms in public.

Reem Kassem joined the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Center in 2003. In 2010 she became the Head of Performing Arts Programming. She programmes and coordinates the monthly performing arts program and the performing arts festivals, she manages the membership of the BA Arts Center in international networks and she promotes its performing arts productions internationally. In 2011, she established AGORA for Arts and Culture, an independent organization connecting arts practice and non-formal education with social development. In 2012, she established AGORA International, a new branch based in Marseille. She has participated in a number of cultural forums in european and northern african countries.

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