Egyptian artists outside Cairo struggle for spotlight

North Africa

The hashtag #Art_Has_No_Place, a campaign launched by artists, attempts to break the monopoly on art imposed by artists in the Egyptian capital Cairo

Cairo is Egypt’s cultural capital, as the majority of art galleries, headquarters of media outlets and other cultural establishments are located in the metropolis. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for artists in other cities around the country, Alexandria-based artist Maha Mohamed and her colleagues launched the #Art_Has_No_Place campaign in July 2017.

Mohamed, 22, told Al-Monitor that the campaign is starting to show solid progress, with cultural events organized in various cities and hundreds of artists joining in. The initiative aims to promote the work of artists from all over Egypt, most of whom are musicians, actors, singers, painters and photographers.

“#Art_Has_No_Place mainly aims to shed light on the monopoly of Cairo in cultural affairs. I have wanted to join the field of TV advertisements and cinema, but I couldn’t because I live in Alexandria. I found that other artists around me face the same problem, so I decided to launch a platform where the public can see the art of people outside the capital,” Mohamed said.

The initiative started with Mohamed and her colleagues posting their art on social media with the hashtag #Art_Has_No_Place, in an attempt to encourage other artists from all over the country to do the same.

The campaign includes a promotional video that features a drummer who plays music in an abandoned place without an audience. The choice of the drummer in the video is deliberate.

“The drummer is the most important band member and the one responsible for setting the tempo. However, he sits at the back [of the stage] and people neither see nor remember him much. That’s exactly what is happening to Egyptian artists who do not live in the capital,” Mohamed said.

The video’s voice-over, by Yousef al-Tohamy, seeks to encourage artists who feel they get little visibility: “You are not alone. There are a lot of people like you. … Successful but trapped in a closed circle. Hardworking but in a deadlock. … No one values their hard work. … You will work hard and try but your eyes won’t see anything but emptiness. … A theater without an audience. … But you should know that you are not just another person in the background, you control the entire song. You are there but they just don’t see you.”

Ahmed Moustafa, the drummer who appeared in the video, said drummers outside Cairo are struggling with low-quality recording studios and producers who are not willing to provide funding for any underground bands that exist in cities outside the capital.

“We lack the funding and facilities in Alexandria. We have very few recording studios. We also lack theaters where we can perform concerts,” he told Al-Monitor. “However, the #Art_Has_No_Place campaign empowers artists from 26 [out of the 29] governorates and provides a platform for them to display their works.”

The campaign has not just been limited to posting art pieces and videos online under the hashtag #Art_Has_No_Place, but it has extended to the organization of an art exhibition and cultural events in collaboration with cultural institutions, including the Goethe Institute, the co-working space Shebak Mazloum and the cultural coffee shop Beram we Sayed in Alexandria.

“A play by an Alexandria-born director was staged at the Goethe Institute after I contacted them and briefed them on the initiative,” Mohamed said.

Anas Elnily, a 23-year-old director from Alexandria, said he experienced difficult times trying to find a theater for his play “Ka’ana” (“As If It Is”) due to the high rental prices in his hometown as well as the limited number of venues.

“Life is hard for independent artists in Egypt in general and it is even harder for people who live outside the capital,” Elnily told Al-Monitor.

Elnily said he posted his desire to perform his play on his Facebook account and was then contacted by the #Art_Has_No_Place initiative. “The initiative plays an instrumental role in easing the obstacles artists face outside the capital in bringing their works to the public,” he said.

Eman Mahmoud, a photographer from Minya, in Upper Egypt, agrees with Elnily. “It is hard to find exhibition spaces in Minya and opportunities for artists are limited. That’s why you have to move to the capital to search for opportunities and funding,” she told Al-Monitor. Mahmoud, who has not joined the campaign but said she will, said she must travel to the capital to seek opportunities to move ahead with her career.

“When there are no facilities in your hometown, you have to move where all the facilities are and where all the attention and [majority of the art sector] is located,” she added.

Art critic Tarek el-Shenawy said that the #Art_Has_No_Place initiative is very important, and that it should be expanded and embraced by governmental institutions. “We have long wanted campaigns like this one because it addresses a very crucial and real obstacle facing artists from outside Cairo,” he told Al-Monitor.

Shenawy said the government should support the initiative and provide facilities for artists outside the capital. He urged media outlets to highlight works by Egyptian artists, and encouraged artists not to give up but instead to find a way to show their art to the public.