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If you don't have Twitter in Egypt. Community Arts 'Mahatat' works from the bottom up. #vvu

The government has made little effort in recent decades to create a cultural scene  getting off the ground. There are no workspaces. No galleries. Only a very large library and a "cultural palace". Both of which opened only five years ago. There are also a few small independent initiatives. In public spaces.

Undeveloped territory

Heba ElCheikh has herself and her organisation, Mahatat, set a valiant task: through a Community Arts project and art projects in public spaces, the dormant art scene of the Egyptian port city of Damietta (population 1 million) to connect with artists in the metropolises of Cairo and Alexandria.

The intention is not to bring art to Damietta, as there is already art. We only want to strengthen the local scene using social media. Online, but especially offline.

Mahatat ('bus stops') is an organisation of artists that focuses on projects outside the established order of art. In previous project, for instance, metro passengers were followed by a white-masked mime, or passers-by transformed a square into a huge mosaic using colour powders provided by the artists.

With support from the neighbourhood

For Heba ElCheikh (1981), who got her master's degree in arts management from Utrecht's Hogeschool voor de Kunsten after training in France and the US, setting up Community Arts projects in the country where she was born is a great challenge. Of course, it also requires a certain sensitivity:

I have learnt that Community Arts management is much less about filling in forms and applying for permits, than it is about direct involvement: participating myself and experiencing what it does to participants.

In Egypt, where Community Arts are still fairly new, she is able to put what she has learnt to good use:

Sometimes you have to deal with a municipal government that is happy to cooperate, but things can also turn out differently. It can vary from person to person and place to place. There are many unwritten rules. Because we usually work in public spaces, it is often quite a puzzle to figure out who is in charge. It's all very layered. Therefore, we usually work in places where you are less dependent on the government.

According to Astrid Thews, co-founder of Mahatat, it is also often not necessary to apply for a licence for everything:

It is much more important to agree with one or more retailers in the area how you will do it.

For Community Art, you have to work from the bottom up, explains Heba ElCheikh:

If you first have the support of the people in the neighbourhood, and those directly involved, you can already get a lot done. Often much more than if you first spend a long time arranging an official permit, and only then confront the local residents with your project. Above all, you have to take them into account and respect their sensitivities. Then, in turn, they will respect you.

Local initiatives first

The project in Damietta, which will be presented during the Treaty of Utrecht festival in June, has not really started yet. Right now, Heba and Astrid are making initial contacts with local artists:

We are now mapping what is already happening. This is how we always work: we want to work together on an equal basis. We go to the city, look around, talk to people and from there we will explore how we can go about the project. We will really work out that concept as Community Art. In workshops, that is.

In June, we want to make a broadcast about what we have made in the city at that time. That will be a multidisciplinary event. The idea is mainly to show what is already happening in the city. And to exchange that with Utrecht artists via an online project.

No Arab Arts Spring

Social media play an important role in the project, as they are also the method by which the artists in Damietta can liaise with their colleagues in Cairo. However, we need not count on an Arab Arts Spring, like earlier demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which were described as a Facebook revolution. Heba stresses that the goal goes deeper: '

What we are doing here is community arts. It's about giving people access to communication tools, whether online or offline. After all: not everyone can always be online.

Astrid Thews adds that there is also such a thing as a class difference:

Twitter is especially popular in certain social classes. We also want to reach others. That's also why we work more with art in public places, rather than through official channels, and also don't perform in theatres and galleries. It should really be connected to the life people lead here.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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