Culture A-Z: Only a few shining moments punctuated the gloom in Egypt’s arts this year
Rateb Seddik, Liliane Brook et son orchestre aveugle, ca. 1940, shown at the Pompidou Centre this autumn.

Our contributors’ verdict on 2016 is in, and we can announce that it has been a sad, dangerous and in some ways dull year on the arts front in Egypt. Several venues have closed, for reasons ranging from raids to dwindling enthusiasm, and even those still standing have tended to scale down their activities. Cultural figures have also been arrested as part of a general attack on dissent and civil society. Some say that we’ve been witnessing one of the worst crackdowns on the independent arts scene since its inception in the 1990s. Our year-end arts alphabet inevitably reflects this crisis, but we also pick up on some more hopeful trends, people and events that have punctuated the doom and gloom.

A is for artist Doa Aly, who has had a busy year. Highlights include a moving new performance (Free Radicals, performed by Noura Hassanein) for Art Dubai Projects in March; a new film work for the Aleya Hamza-curated D-CAF Visual Arts exhibition Sounds As If in April; contributing to Nemocentric, a group exhibition curated by Bassam El Baroni in Vienna in September; being one of three artists shortlisted for the ninth Abraaj Group Art Prize (Aly will therefore be making a solo presentation at next year’s Art Dubai); and contributing to Meeting Points 8: Both Sides of the Curtain in Cairo and Brussels.

B is for Bes, released by the Dwarfs of East Agouza (Maurice Louca, Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi) in May. A liberated and emotional album, it sometimes sounds like they’ve stolen an African beat from an old recording to examine it, roam around it and break it apart, allowing their improvisation to go to places where the music gets decomposed and you only hear noise, and then it forms back up again into a fresh version of that central powerful phrase. They’ve had a busy year all round, touring Europe extensively and playing three nights in a row at Meeting Points in Brussels.

C is for Cimatheque, which started its regular public programming this autumn after over four years of planning, construction and bureaucracy, as well as various other activities including publishing the first edition of film journal Kurrusat al-Cimatheque, hosting Zawya’s decentralization workshop and collaborating regularly with neighboring restaurant Eish w Malh for the wonderful Dinner at the Movies.

D is for design, one of the few art forms to which this year has been good. Dubai Design Week celebrated Egyptian design with its Cairo Now! City Incomplete exhibition, curated by Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed, and there’s a general consensus that design in the country and the region is taking off, in terms of issues such as education and sustainability, as well as specific disciplines, such as Arabic typography.

E is for Cairo-based Arabic music platform Eka3, which has had a productive year, starting work with Sarah El Miniawy’s music PR and management agency Simsara and continuing to support booking agency Almoharek, a record label Mostakell, music licensing company Awyav, and online Arabic music magazine Ma3azef. Its founder, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, also released a celebrated album, Thulth, through Mostakell in August.

F is for farewells, both within the local art scene and the world at large. In July, Egyptian cinema lost a doyen, Mohamed Khan, who consistently directed films for more than 30 years. Actor Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz passed away in November, days before the start of the Cairo International Film Festival, which was dedicated to him. Child prodigy Feyrouz and actor Zubaida Tharwat, from Egyptian cinema’s “golden age,” also left us, as well as actors Ahmed Rateb, Mohamed Kamel and Mamdouh Aleem. Poet Farouk Shousha and journalist Hassanein Heikal were also among those who departed.

Alexandria’s El Cabina, which housed many of the city’s alternative bands, said goodbye in the summer — although founders Gudran say there is a new space on the horizon. In downtown Cairo, After Eight club closed in December after operating since 1962 (15 years under its current management) and in April Townhouse gallery had to move next door to its Factory Space after its HQ, occupied since 1998, due to a partial building collapse and attempted demolition. In Port Said, cultural center Boulevard was closed in a raid by authorities in November. Some initiatives — such as Alexandria’s four-year-old Theater is a Must festival and tiny Cairo art initiative Nile Sunset Annex — have reconsidered their role in hosting regular events. Currently at risk of closing is Room Art Space and Cafe, which has just launched a crowd-funding campaign to try and cope with Egypt’s new economic realities.

G is for geographical decentralization, in honor of some serious attempts at much-needed decentralization of the arts this year, most notably from Zawya cinema, whose August workshop on film distribution had some swift results; Cinedelta, a year-long documentary film education program in the Delta region implemented by Alexandria’s Fig Leaf Studios and Marwan Omara; and Mahatat, which continued to tour various governorates and celebrated its fifth birthday by releasing a new toolkit, a kind of ode to what remains of art in the public realm. Port Said did particularly well this year – except for the blow of Boulevard’s closure.

City Shadows, curated by Nadia Mounir and organized by Mahatat, in Port Said this July.

H is for Hebta, a film about love that, despite containing barely any sex, violence or comedy, did very well in cinemas this year, just like the novel it was based on was a bestseller in 2014.

I is for imprisonment. Several cultural figures have spent a chunk of the year either behind bars or in exile escaping arrest warrants. Novelist Ahmed Naji was jailed in February for a sexually explicit chapter of his novel, serialized in Akhbar al-Adab. After serving nearly ten months in jail, Naji’s sentence was suspended, pending review, on December 18. Young satire group Atfal al-Shawarea are in jail for criticizing the government in a YouTube video. Cartoonist Islam Gawish was briefly detained in January on charges of “misusing communications networks.” There is also an arrest warrant out for poet Fatma Naout for criticizing the religious practice of sheep slaughter on Facebook.

Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective, right on trend, has been running a year-long, multifaceted project on the broad theme of imprisonment, named If Not for that Wall.

J is for judicial police powers, otherwise known as powers of arrest, which were stripped from the leading members of the actors and musicians syndicates in April. The justice minister had granted them late last year, prompting a successful legal battled by musicians, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.

K is for the 15-second kossomak video that went viral last month, spawning various spin-offs and somehow reflecting the year as a whole. In it, two young kids whisper in front of a camera on a balcony on a quiet afternoon. A tired grumpy father might be napping before a night shift, and a serious mother may be cooking with zero tolerance for kids’ funny business. The kids do look like trouble even before they start doing anything. The smaller one is awed by the fact that the camera is recording a video. It’s a life-changing moment. He asks twice: “Is that video!?” Then his expression shifts from innocent astonishment to pure lustful evil as he realizes the unlimited power he has just acquired by being able to freeze time and record whatever he can say. The energy leaks out of him to infect his brother/friend/partner-in-crime who stands behind and, knowing who his companion is, can already sense what’s building. The friend starts dancing to an unheard beat, his body like a warrior filling with the ecstasy of imminent destruction, and the kid in the front, his eyes directly staring into the soul of whoever is watching, hisses (probably to make sure that the mother doesn’t hear): “Fuck you… fuck you … shit… shit…”

L is for eL Seed’s large-scale anamorphic mural project Perception in Cairo’s Zaraeeb neighborhood in March.

M is for arts tackling mental health, which has become a recurring theme. Mental health issues popped up in various Ramadan TV series, in particular the very problematic Soqot Horr (Free Fall), scripted by Mariam Naoum, while one chapter of CIC’s If Not for that Wall series also had a focus on mental health in Chronic: On Psychological Exhaustion as a Public State (read two responses here and here).

N is for the mysterious Nefertiti, who some archaeologists believe may have been the original owner of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, an untested hypothesis that seemed to gain more traction in March, when radar scans suggested the existence of two unexplored chambers beyond the tomb’s walls.

O is for Omrr (Omar El Abd) and Onsy (Mostafa Onsy), who separately released electronic music albums this year that have been well-received among Egypt’s small but serious experimental electronic music scene. Onsy is also part of Mapping Possibilities, an audiovisual performance collective which popped up at Makan in January and played at the closing event for new initiative Cairotronica in May.

For better or worse, P stands for the professionalization of internet entertainment, as companies and individuals have invested in harnessing its potential far more than in previous years. Sarrah Abdelrahman’s online show Salizone (Breadsticks), a response to Ramadan TV is one example, as is the popular big-budget Titanic spoof (imaginatively named Arabic Titanic Version) produced directly for the internet. Various monetized satire, talk, arts criticism and comedy shows have also emerged. People and ideas that initially gained fame on the internet have also transferred to TV where they recycled their internet humor – examples include SNL, Abla Fahita, Ashraf Yuqadimoho Ayman (Ashraf is presented by Ayman) and Plateau. A related initiative is Bteekh, a new website that has very successfully helped people create GIFS.

Q is for a novel excavating the traumas unleashed by the notorious 2001 Queen Boat raid. Written by Mohammed Abdelnaby and published this year, In the Spider’s Room is one of the few fictional works to center around a gay Egyptian. (Read two contrasting reviews here and here.)

R is for Randa Shaath’s exhibition of 40 intimate still-life photographs at Gypsum Gallery in March. “I found myself looking for some warmth in houses that don’t necessarily belong to me,” she told Lina Attalah.

Randa Shaath, Untitled (Indelible series), 2016, archival ink prints, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Gypsum Gallery.

S is for the Surrealists. The rebellious short-lived Egyptian surrealist movement enjoyed an unprecedented revival this autumn with three simultaneous large-scale institutional exhibitions that the surrealists themselves might have dismissed. The results of research, cultural patronage, global art trends and art market machinations, the there exhibitions were: When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965) at Cairo’s Palace of the Art, organized by Sharjah Art Foundation, the American University in Cairo and Egypt’s Fine Arts Sector; Art et Liberté – Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) at the Centre Pompidou curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, and Kamal Youssef: Egyptian Surrealism’s Time Capsule at Sharjah Art Foundation.

T is for Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City. The director’s award-winning decade-in-the-making debut film, which was released in February at the Berlinalebecame embroiled in a controversy in November after it was withdrawn from the Cairo International Film Festival’s competition. It has still not been shown in Egypt.

U is for changing urban landscapes and the concern this has produced, including renovations of Alexandria’s Raml Station and Misr Station, and Groppi in downtown Cairo, among other downtown buildings, and the Continental Savoy Hotel.

V is for Egypt’s installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which clearly had an unusual amount of thought and effort put into it.

W is for whipping up anti-civil-society sentiment through TV series, as was done in a fantastically unsubtle way by “The Ceasar” this Ramadan.

X is for an excellent book of comics produced by young teenagers, titled Shamashr, during a workshop at the Arab Digital Expression Foundation in Alexandria this summer.

captionY is for young visual artists, who keep emerging despite the odds, as evidenced by Medrar’s Roznama exhibition and the always busy Youth Salon. MASS Alexandria, the independent art study program founded by artist Wael Shawky, also made a come-back after a two-year hiatus and its 25 participants put on a well-received final exhibition in December.

Z is for downtown Cairo club Zigzag (previously VENT, previously Arabesque), which has started organizing much-needed live music nights on a weekly basis.

Thank you to all those who contributed to this alphabet.


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