Wednesday, 26 December 2012

In my 2012...

One performance

Three films



One spoken word artist

One song

One book

And the journey

Click here to see the album.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Guest post: "The story of the boy who fell asleep", by Mohamed El Ghawy (Egypt)

The last guest post of the year comes from a dreamer, a story teller, my friend Mohamed El Ghawy. Mohamed is that kind of dreamer that keeps surprising us with the way he manages to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He´s cautious but determined, he always tries to move things a step further, he knows what he needs to do to make the dreams come true and... does it. We talked extensively last summer about the situation is Egypt and his plans for AFCA, the organization he founded in 2004, aiming to bring education to Egyptian children through arts and culture. This is his contribution towards his country´s future, a future populated by creative, imaginative, sensitive and active citizens, who will be able to accept the others and find their way on their own. mv

Visual arts workshop for underprivileged children. (Photo: AFCA)
“Children crowded the hall, and as usual, I was telling a story. Some of them were opening their mouths in imitation and others were wide-eyed with fascination. The interaction was great, I was enjoying stretching my voice to imitate characters and various animals. The children were laughing. They were happy to watch, as I was happy to perform. Suddenly, I noticed a boy who was in the last row, against the wall. His eyes drifted shut and his head bobbed. He fell asleep and I was shocked, it was the first time this had happened to me. Feeling upset for not being able to attract his attention, I continued and in the end, I went to apologize to the teacher. Seeing how it affected me, she laughed and said: «This boy suffers from insomnia and we are working with his parents to help him. The doctor says that he doesn’t sleep because he doesn’t feel safe».”

This didn´t happen to me; a storyteller from Croatia told us about it during a training session in Ireland. For a long time, I have been interested in how to use the arts in the educational approach of the young. In my home country, Egypt, the educational system is very traditional, as children are expected to learn things by heart, without reflecting on what they memorize, thus it tends to become boring. For me Education is a tool and must remain like that.

When I was 25, I went on a boat trip in southern Egypt with a bunch of friends, to get away from the crazy up-tempo life in Cairo. We drifted along the Nile in a small boat for 4 nights. No technology, no stress, just nature and us. One night, the sky was full of stars and one of my friends, Damien, opened a map of stars and started playing with stones. He said that if a wish was made at that moment, it would come true before the end of the following year. Without hesitation, I spoke about my dream to open a place where kids could learn everything through the arts. All my friends got excited about it and we started looking for a name. “It must include French, you adore that language”, said Marwa; and Yasmine said: “You will open it in Cairo right?”. Damien said that in his country (Belgium) they called this kind of projects “art academy” and at that moment we came up with the french acronym AFCA - Académie Francophone Cairote des Arts

Half a year later, we all gathered at the opening of my art academy. Damien was in Europe and came back for Christmas, wearing a Santa costume and singing for the children: “One year ago we were playing with the stars in the sky, now we are playing with you on the real earth…”

AFCA’s mission is to “Educate young people through Arts and Culture in Egypt”.  The activities it proposes are designed to enhance the use of languages - French, English and Arabic - and to encourage every child’s creativity and natural artistry and use it as a means to develop personal skills.

Some people believed in our vision. I remember always Aly’s mother who was a great supporter from the very first day. Like us, she believed that her child could learn and speak a second language without a need for an academic system, relying on just the arts. We chatted two years after AFCA began. She said that Aly was very happy. His personality had changed completely and his social skills had developed a lot - but he only spoke the language he learned at school. Three years later, I received a call from her. “We have been in France for four days, and Aly is our guide, speaking in French. Thank you!”. At AFCA, we played together with languages, painted and even cooked with them. Aly is now 12 and is part of the team planning our tenth anniversary in 2014.

After the revolution, we had positive energy and we felt that we were free. We decided to build bridges with other cultures and we established the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, with the aim to bring shows from all over the world to perform for the Egyptian children. Exposure to other cultures will support the development of their imagination and their creativity, and open their minds to the world and cultural diversity. We opened this festival to economically underprivileged children who usually have very limited access to the arts. But it is their right, too, to express themselves and to feel accepted by others, even at the international level. We believe that arts and culture are priceless for children, equally important as food and health. Eating is a culture, driving the car is a culture, listening while discussing with others is a culture, cleaning is a culture. Especially now in Egypt, we need these intangible sides of culture.

Second edition of Hakawy Festival with children with special needs. (Photo AFCA)

Some people think that teaching arts to kids is a luxury. It is not; it is as important as anything. It teaches creativity, social skills and imagination. The history of a country, told as a story or performed as a play, will never be forgotten. How often does anyone remember the dates in history if it was only studied to answer exam questions?

Learning through the arts enhances a child’s education greatly. The AFCA team teaches foreign languages through theater or singing, and even more complex subjects, as mathematics and science, can be taught through visual arts. It is more important than ever for the younger generations to possess an array of soft skills. Considering something as simple as baking, an apple pie can surprisingly help a child learn essential team building skills. Art is not a subject on its own; it permeates through the entire curriculum.

Because of the Egyptian economical situation, that stops 28 out of 100 children from finding a place in public schools, we cannot let them be depended on the government anymore. We must train them early on, in a creative way, to think and search. Not only to follow us, but to be in the center, so that we can follow them.

In front of AFCA, one day after Hosni Mubarak´s resignation. (Photo: AFCA)
In order to contribute in the development of our country, and considering that it is the role of independent organizations to be part of the solution, AFCA joined the board of trusties of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo to develop education through arts in public schools. We are spreading this knowledge, we are observing the process and doing assessment after the implementation of every project. We always say that “Education through Arts and Culture doesn't need a PHD; everyone can do it, at home, in the street....with your children or with your friends´ children”. I also cannot forget the role of arts and culture in building the social integration of the underprivileged children or those with special needs.  It can even replace a medicine. I still remember the great impact of our activities on the refugees from Iraq and now from Syria, who found social integration through art. It costs nothing, we only need to believe that, to secure the future of our children, we need to build from a young age. Our aim is to help every egyptian child to be able to accept others and find his way on his own.

It is not easy to work in the arts, especially with the current political situation, but we are moving forward and trying to be creative in solving the problems we face. I always encourage myself and my team by reminding everyone that the boy who fell asleep wasn´t bored with the story; he fell asleep because he felt secure.

Mohamed El Ghawy graduated from the faculty of Arts, French Language and Litterature Department, in Cairo University. He started his career as a drama teacher, actor and storyteller, in several schools and cultural centres. He authored several plays and directed many productions. Trained with the international baccalaureate organisation IBO on how to use the arts in education, he founded AFCA in 2004, an independent arts and culture organisation in Egypt. To spread the arab and egyptian culture around the world, he has toured internationally as a storyteller and trainer in education through the arts. He established Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children in Egypt, under the auspices of the Egyptian ministry of culture, with the support of several embassies and the UNESCO. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo. He studied at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington. He as participated in many projects with international artists to use arts and culture as a tool for intercultural learning in France, Germany and Algeria. Recently, he became the representative of Assitej International Network for Theatre for Young Audience and Youth in Egypt and is working with other organisations locally to rebuild it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Magic places

Workshop by Ricardo Lopes (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
Blockbuster exhibitions attract big audiences and a lot of attention. They are perceived as “once in a lifetime” events. In the last twelve months, three of the big highlights were: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Milan Court at the National Gallery in London; the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern (it ran from April to September and by the time it closed it was the most popular solo show in the museum´s history); and there was also The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the parisian Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (although, in the this case, the big issue was that the fashion exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, also at the Metropolitan, had outdrown the art blockbuster in terms of attendance - read here).

On the occasion of the Leonardo exhibition, the Guardian launched the debate “Are blockbuster art shows worth queueing for?” and Observer writer Miranda Sawyer and Royal Academy CEO Charles Saumarez Smith  - defending the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ respectively – discussed if and how can one appreciate art in crowded exhibition rooms. At the time, James Page added a more interesting aspect to this debate, by reminding in his blog that the discussion was revealing in a number of ways, not just in terms of the views of the two protagonists, but also as a natural tendency within the cultural sector to ask itself how its audiences think, feel or act rather than go direct to the audiences in question”.

Blockbuster exhibitions also raise the issue of scale. And this seems to be a great concern for a lot of people, since both as citizens in general, and as professionals in particular, they tend to feel small - and by ‘small’ they mean powerless, unable to create an impact.

The issue of scale has been in my mind as well. My thoughts recently have mostly concentrated on ideas and actions that are probably of a small or medium scale, but which still have an impact and can still make a difference in other people´s lives - apart from our own, of course. They are the ideas and actions that are within our reach, but which can still contribute towards a bigger whole.

Workshop by Maria Alcobia (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)
The project “Magic places” is an initiative of the Regional Cultural Authority of the Algarve. It brings together historic sites and contemporary artistic creation; it becomes the ‘magic place’ of an encounter between artists and young people under the care of social services. In concrete terms, this means that artists Maria Alcobia, Vasco Célio, Ricardo Lopes and Miguel Cheta (from the fields of dance, photography, ceramics and design respectively), coordinated by Tânia Borges Nunes (Atelier Educativo), worked together with young people and, inspired by the local heritage, taught them the technics of their art and produced some beautiful pieces together.

After the first edition, in 2010, there was a publication with texts written by all those involved. The second edition, in 2012, resulted in a one-day meeting last month, which brought together those involved and gave us the opportunity to get to know the project in more detail. Right in the start, a rare accomplishment took place in front of our eyes: representatives of the culture, education, and social fields sat around the same table and praised a project which they believe has accomplished a goal common to them all (isn´t this what it´s all about, how it should always be?). The day then went on and through films, photos and debates, we got to understand the huge vision behind this rather small-scale project.

There is no doubt that this has had a significant impact in the lives of all those involved. Listening to them, one realizes that it has been a process of discovery and inspiration and, in some cases, a mind-changing experience regarding ‘normality’ and ‘inclusion’. In that aspect, it seems that the objectives set by Regional Director Dália Paulo – “to allow for different perspectives, dialogues and experiences among the target audience, in a full exercise of citizenship” and “culture [as] an engine for social change” – have been met. I just felt it was a pity we didn´t get to hear the voice of the young people themselves, we didn´t get to hear the story of their participation and what it meant to them in their own words (an indication that the ‘natural tendency’ of the british cultural sector that James Page was talking about, also affects the portuguese cultural sector). Filomena Rosa, president of one of the social institutions involved, did bring some feedback, quoting in her presentation a few of the young people involved: “Photos in the town! I didn´t use to pay attention before, they were just old stones, but through the photos I learned”; or “I learned that a photo has got a lot to say, like a landscape that says something to us, with feelings”.

Workshop by Vasco Célio (Photo: Vasco Célio / Stills)  
In my final comment that day, I recalled the brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues - who didn´t set up her studio at a Rio de Janeiro slum wishing to resolve the problem of poverty or violence - and Daniel Barenboim – who didn´t create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra hoping to bring peace in the Middle East (more in my post Places of encounter). The contribution of Culture, in the first place, is not related to issues like poverty, violence, crime, mental health, illiteracy, etc. Artists and culture professionals in general do not aim to take the role of social workers, teachers, politicians, policemen, priests or doctors. Culture, in the first place, is about critical thinking, self-expression (verbal and non-verbal), creativity, sensitivity; it´s about getting to know the ‘other’. So in that sense, when everything (culture, education, social action) comes together – in a ‘place of encounter’ or in a ‘magic place’ - I believe we have more chances of building a more democratic, more tolerant, more inclusive society; a society where we don´t live in compartments and we don´t define the ‘other’ based on their differences, but simply see them as human beings (not ´special´ or ‘disabled’ or ‘different’ or even ‘problematic’). “Magic Places” is the kind of project that brings together the necessary ingredients that can make this happen.

One final note: I was twice in Algarve recently in meetings with culture professionals. I felt there is a clear sense of purpose among them, there is a lot of motivation and dedication to the ‘cause’, there is satisfaction for what has been accomplished and a wish for more. And everything and everyone point towards the Regional Director, our colleague Dália Paulo. There is no doubt for me that it´s her vision, her professionalism, her knowledge and capacities that drive and inspire the whole team. Dália Paulo and the rest of the colleagues I met there are doing things at their own scale, making a ‘blockbuster’ difference in the lives of those living in the region. They are Wangari Maathai´s hummingbirds.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Says who?

Giselle Ciulla, 'curator' of Giselle´s Remix. (Photo taken from the website of Clark Art Institute)

uCurate is an initiative by Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA. It is a digital application that allows people to design imaginary exhibitions made up with objects from the museum collection. Proposals enter a competition and the winner gets to set up a real exhibition with the museum´s help. In this first edition, and after evaluating almost 1000 proposals, the winner was an 11-yaer-old girl, Giselle Ciulla, who´s inviting us now to visit Giselle´s Remix (more here).

It´s so good to see Giselle´s happy face and we can almost feel how proud she is of her exhibition. This is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared, even if this is about 11-year-old children. The objects´ labels were written by Giselle herself. They convey simplicity and freshness, they demonstrate sensitivity. A few years ago I had seen lables written by visitors at the Tate Britain and I had also liked them a lot. For me, they were, for me, as interesting as the others, the ‘official’ ones. At the time (it was in 2004) Maev Kennedy of the Guardian had found the initiative dubious. On the otehr hand, Tate Britain´s director at the time, Stephen Deuchar, was saying that he would be particularly interested in the contributions of visitors who might know much more on a painting than the museum experts or the artists themselves (read here).

On 12th to 14th of November I was at the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, organized by Culturgest in collaboration with the programme Descobrir of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. One of the main concerns of those present seemed to be the issue of ‘authority’ regarding the interpretation of a work of art. When I did my master´s, we were ‘warned’ that people acknowledged authority in museums, they considered the information they found in them as a ‘validated truth’. But even at that time, and it´s been almost 20 years, we were questioning ourselves regarding the possibility (and the obligation) to create the space for more than one story to be told.

Well, there is still a concern and lots of thinking about it. The concept of participatory museum (so well substantiated in theory and in practice by Nina Simon) is being widely accepted. An interesting case, among others, at the above mentioned conference was that of the dTOURS at the contemporary art exhibition dOCUMENTA. These were (paid) guided tours given by people of various ages and backgrounds, the majority residing in Kassel, the city that hosts the exhibition. The dTOURS had taken place for the first time in the previous edition, dOCUMENTA 12, and they had resulted in a number of complaints from the audience. Although the organizers had informed that the tours would be given by non-specialists, participants still felt ‘cheated’, their expectations had been different. Nevertheless, and despite the not so positive evaluation, dOCUMENTA 13 repeted the tours.

A number of issues are raised here: Why repeat an initiative, in exactly the same way, if it was not positively evaluated? Are we ignoring – in the name of experimentation, of exploration, of a wish to do more and better – people´s basic needs, such as listen to what a specialist has to say on a specific subject, such as in a ‘normal’ guided tour, such as in a ‘normal’ label? Are we walking towards an opposite extreme, where “visitors know best” (even “more than the artists themselves”, to quote again the Tate Britain´s former director)?

Clay Shirky´s book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators  tells us about the pro-am (professional – amateur) movement and how new technologies allow us today to use people´s enormous cognitive surplus. People are eager to contribute with their knowledge (without being paid for it, just because it makes them feel good, useful, involved) towards all sorts of projects, social causes, etc. Wikipedia is such an example. Ian David Moss argued in his blog Createquity that the model of Wikipedia may be applied to culture, in programming or in distributing funds (read here).

People continue looking for information in museums. In an article by Stephen Weil entitled “The Museum and the Public” (included in the book Museums and their communities, edited by Sheila Watson), I read that, after the era of ‘celebratory’ and assertive museums, there was a new trend, that of admitting that what´s being said is not a closed issue, it could be open to different interpretations or the subject of ongoing research. It´s worth mentioning that it was a natural history museum (the American Museum of Natural History) one of the first to present labels which said “what we know so far”, “but we might be wrong, it´s happened before, there is an ongoing reserach”, etc. Maybe because scientists are more at ease than other specialists with testing and error and with admitting that they had been wrong. 

Specialists don´t know everything, but they know a lot, more than we do in their specific areas. We may find them in and out of museums, they may be professionals or amateurs, and together they may contribute in the development of our knowledge. I, as a visitor, still look for their opinion, for their ‘version', not because I wish to accept it as if it was the Bible, but because with it I can build my own opinion, my own knowledge. At the same time, going beyond information, and considering that a museum visit is also feelings, surprises, emotions, sharing, previous knowledge and experiences, memories, the specialist – when also a good mediator or facilitator (or...) – will know how to create that space where everyone can contribute with their ideas, their experiences, their interpretations, their reactions. That space where there are no specialists and non-specialists, right or wrong. Thus, the participatory museum for me is not the museum  which, in the name of cultural democracy, passes the responsibility for one of its main functions over to the visitor. The participatory museum is that which gives ‘Giselle’ (each one of us) the tools to build and admit without fear her tastes, opinions, sensitivities and which creates the space for them to be hosted and shared with everyone.

This text is based on my short intervention during the closing of the conference In the name of the arts or in the name of the audiences, on November 14.

More readings
Museu2.0: a arte de ouvir o público, in the newspaper O Globo (27.11.2012)
Selling a product vs building a movement, by Nina Simon
When painting labels do their job, by Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic
Stories from the field: The Walters Art Museum, by Dallas Shelby
"GO", a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, by Martha Schwendener 
The power of non-experts, by Desi Gonzalez

Still on this blog
We are for people. Or… are we?
La crise oblige? (ii) Programming challenges
Building a family: lessons from the social sector
Free to visit an art museum
Museums: new churches?