MASS Alexandria: A steeper learning curve than expected
MASS Alexandria - Courtesy: Esraa El Najjar

This year, participants in the independent art study program MASS Alexandria are facing an uncertain finale to their seven months together. Political unrest, lack of funds and the program coordinator’s early departure means they are having to rely on each other more than planned — a situation that could be an exciting exercise in self-organization.

MASS was set up by artist Wael Shawky in a huge basement in Alexandria’s Miami neighborhood in 2010, with the goal of complementing existing art education programs in Egypt. After the pilot year, the program went on hiatus in 2011, and the second year ran from January to July 2012. Last year 22 participants showed their work in a three-day exhibition in the space — although, due to its timing in the summer and distant location, the exhibition wasn’t very widely seen.

This year, 21 participants between the ages of 14 and 30 joined the free program in January. The students, many of whom are simultaneously studying in a more conventional educational institution, negotiate the use of the basement between themselves. They had four tutors this year: Bassam El Baroni, curator and co-founder of the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, which closed last year; Sarah Rifky, co-founder of the Cairo-based Beirut art space; and visual artists Malak Helmy and Asuncion Molinos Gordo. They work on a one-to-one basis with about four tutees each (sometimes via Skype, as three are based in Cairo). Visiting artists and curators from Egypt and abroad have also come to give workshops and lectures on an almost weekly basis. In February, six participants, led by this year’s program coordinator Petra Swais, interned for two weeks at Sharjah Biennial. One of them, Zeina Aly, set up a blog to document that experience.

Hagar Sobeea, a participant who also studies at the Alexandria Fine Arts Faculty, talks about how essential it has been for her as an artist to “meet people from Cairo and become familiar with the arts community” through the MASS program. She says she would never have imagined having access to so many lectures.

But things began to shift into a territory that the students weren’t expecting in June during the run-up to the final exhibition, when lectures and workshops had already come to an end. Swais suddenly left Egypt at the end of that month, largely due to the volatile political situation. Three of the participants — Aly, Sobeea and A. Fouad Rageb — volunteered to take on the coordination.

This seems to have left them largely on their own. Shawky is not often present at the space, as he travels frequently for work, while the four MASS tutors have been otherwise occupied.

 “It seems like it is just a bad time for them with travelling and what not, and Skype meetings are very difficult to coordinate,” Aly explains.

“Petra [Swais] was some kind of authority, which is what a lot of the students need,” she continues. Recently, only a core of four or five students have been coming to MASS regularly — in part due to family commitments, exams and political uncertainty. And getting responses to emails is difficult, so “the decision-making process becomes drawn out and ineffective,” she says.

MASS has previously received financial support from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, the Goethe Institut, the Young Arab Theatre Fund and the Foundation for Arts Initiatives. While this partially covered programming expenses this year, there was no funding for the final show, a situation that the students were not expecting.

On July 12 there was a hastily-called meeting with Shawky — to which only half the students showed up, Aly says — and the group decided to have a one-day open studio instead of an exhibition. Aly explains that there were various reasons for this: It is Ramadan, which may mean few viewers would attend, and technicians such as carpenters and electricians will be less available than usual. Furthermore, Miami is not a central neighborhood, “which has been an issue for everyone,” says Aly, and “with a low budget and limited time it seemed like an open studio was most appropriate.”

Swais is optimistic about the idea. “I know that the students are disappointed not to have an exhibition as such,” she says, describing the open studio as “an alternative kind of show, where things still contain possibilities of evolving into more ambitious projects that the participants can hopefully achieve as completed artworks in the near future.”

She expects “experimental artworks that address and reflect the urgency in the current situation that MASS Alexandria and the students have jointly experienced.”

Rifky, who has been involved in MASS from the beginning and still helps with its management, says, “I think it will be exciting to see how the artist students will respond to the situation, which is largely also self-organized. Already, one manifestation of reflection is on their tumblr page. I think this is quite different from previous years.” 

Sobeaa also seems positive: “I’m excited about the open studio and expect to see a lot of people joining from Alexandria and Cairo to see the project and interact with the discussions happening.”

“I think we can still make it work,” says Aly, whose enthusiasm is more qualified. “Our biggest problem is communication.” Due to diversity in terms of attendance, age, backgrounds and aims, she says, it has proved impossible for the entire group to collaborate.

Aly is working on the idea of setting up an online live stream for the open studio day, which will be on July 26, and she and Rageb spontaneously decided to start a blog about the final 25 days. It has become quite diverse and visually exciting: They have received contributions from a couple of other students, and have created miscellaneous visual sections, such as “stuff written and drawn on the walls of MASS.” It also features quite a lot of collaborative work by Aly, who moved from Cairo to Alexandria for MASS, and Rageb, who studies pharmacy, including texts such as a bittersweet poem and musings about the funding game.

“The blog has been a great experience,” Aly says, adding that in general she has learned a lot through her experience coordinating the program. “It’s a great example of the issues with institutions here, lack of organization and funds,” she says, and as a result she “understands better how collaborating with other artists can come in different forms.”

She also wants to write a report with Swais on how MASS could be made better in future years. Due to Egypt’s education system — which is underfunded, quite rigid and traditional — “the concepts of contemporary art or of an independent study program are unfamiliar to most students who come to MASS,” Aly asserts.  While on the program, she found that “putting in studio time and collaborating are essential things that don’t really exist here [in Egypt].”

Shawky was unable to respond on time for this article, but Rifky says, “The structural support has been less this year, and so there has been more improvisation. MASS Alexandria runs with a very small team and sometimes even remotely. So administratively, it’s an artist-run space in a sense, and Wael [Shawky] puts a lot of his own energy and resources into the project. We’ve simply spent more time on shaping the program than actually building it structurally.”

Rifky says MASS will continue in 2014, “though perhaps with a reconsideration of its format and length. I think it would be great to have a one-year program that runs from September to June, which was the initial plan for the school. Also, the project has to grow the right infrastructure to support it, so it’s not precarious or contingent on individuals.”

For the current MASS students, thinking beyond next Friday, Swais mentions that Shawky is negotiating a collaboration between MASS and the Sharjah Art Foundation, involving selected students being invited to make new works for a show at SAF next year.

Aly says the students aren’t yet sure how this would work, but that they were not letting the idea distract them from their current task. “All the students have made it clear that the priority is putting on a good show,” she says.

Things keep changing fast for the MASS students, but whatever happens, if the previous years’ exhibitions and their evolving blog is anything to go by, next Friday’s open studio will be well worth a trip to Miami.

Open Studio, Friday 26 July, 10am to 11pm

Mass Alexandria, 2 al-Medina al-Monawra Street, Miami, Alexandria


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