Artists speak about Egyptian culture ministry’s role and candidates

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While Egypt is still waiting for its new interim government, Egyptian artists express their expectations from the new minister of culture – a collaborative article by myself, Ati Metwaly and Sara Elkamel for Ahram Online.
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The occupation of the culture ministry by protesters in opposition to policies emplaced by former-minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz continues since its beginning on 5 June. The artists oppose the sacking of several key figures from Egypt’s cultural institutions as well as Abdel-Aziz’s alleged ‘Brotherhoodisation’ of the cultural scene.The removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency and the subsequent waning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s access to power has not affected the artists’ occupation of parts of the ministry of culture.

However to many Egyptian artists – including those in the independent culture scene – the political change initiated by the million-strong protests has produced hope that the role of the culture ministry can be redefined to better respond to the many demands of Egypt’s cultural landscape.

The artists continuing their occupation of the ministry have no concrete names as suggested replacements for Abdel-Aziz, although, in a statement released on 5 July, they indicated potential candidates should not be among former-ministers. In the same statement, they demanded the revocation of all policies implemented by Alaa Abdel-Aziz, who has been in office since 7 May.

Concerned their demands will not be realised, artists vowed not to leave the ministry until their concerns are addressed.

But artists occupying the culture ministry are not alone in formulating their suggestions on the role that the new minister, and his ministry, should play.

Views amongst artists are divided. While many debate the extent of the roles the culture ministry should play in the country, others reject the institution outright.

Artists occupying the ministry voice the need for a minister who has a “satisfactory artistic and managerial portfolio.”

Iman El-Bahr Darwish, a musician and former head of the Egyptian Music Syndicate, did not participate in the sit-in, but nevertheless agrees in principle with the sit-in, adding: “The new minister doesn’t have to have a large creative portfolio, but he should be aware of all sectors of the Egyptian culture and should have very good skills in administration and organisation.”

Darwish believes that the name of the minister should be suggested by a committee formed by artists occupying the ministry, joined by intellectuals from the Supreme Council of Culture.

“There are already a few good candidates for the ministerial post among the artists occupying the ministry,” Darwish continued.

A few artists not involved in the sit-in are more eager to provide direct suggestions of individuals capable of handling the many tasks that the ministerial chair requires.

Independent visual artist known for his many graffiti works, Ganzeer, tells Ahram Online that writer and political commentator Alaa El-Aswany should take the helm.

“[El-Aswany] has enormous cultural capital, he is well respected amongst many Egyptians, as well as being a well recognised name on the international literary scene. His work has become part of the popular consciousness and he doesn’t come from that scene of niche-art that lives entirely in a bubble. He’s a revolutionary figure, which is essential when forming a revolutionary government,” Ganzeer explains to Ahram Online.

Huda Lutfi, a visual artist, suggests Basma El-Husseiny, founder and chairperson of Al Mawred Al Thakafy, an independent non-profit cultural organization. “She has a vast and a wide experience in this field,” Lutfi explains.

However, El-Husseiny has always been outspoken regarding her vision of the ministry and culture at large. In an interview conducted with El-Husseiny in October 2011, El-Husseiny suggested the main sectors of the ministry be transformed into “public institutions [whose responsibility would be] caring for cultural dynamics and the preservation of national cultural resources.” For El-Husseiny “it is the role of non-governmental institutions to practice cultural work, providing cultural services for people.”

El-Husseiny’s vision is supported by several independent artists who perceive the ministry to be an old-fashioned institution that served neither the Egyptian people or its culture – as such there is no need to insist upon its existence.

Independent filmmaker Ahmad Abdalla, known for his awards-winning movies Microphone and Heliopolis, told Ahram Online that he is against the concept of a ministerial institution shaping Egypt’s culture.

“The Egyptian government should not be involved in the Egyptian artistic scene. Culture should be in the hands of independent public institutions, each serving a specific sector,” Abdalla commented.

Aliaa El-Geraidy, independent visual artist at Gudran, Alexandria suggests the formation of a specialised committee to replace the culture ministry.

“We need a proper committee that works with each of the art sectors. Whoever comes as the minister will be crushed, because the institution itself is infected.”

El-Geraidy also suggests that Egypt needs a funding body, that “has locations, resources, a budget. These locations also need to be decentralised.”

It is evident that views are divided, especially among independent artists. While some reject the existence of the ministry as an institution, others expect a complete reorganisation of the cullture ministry on the administrative level and a reshuffling of its priorities to take place.

Accordingly, the “funding body” that El-Geraidy mentions can be the culture ministry itself on the condition that its role is revamped and adjusted to the current expectations and needs of the cultural scene.

“The ministry of culture has to give up the role of the big brother it has been playing over artists,” comments Sondos Shabayek, theatre director and actor. “The ministry of culture as a state institution needs to be knocked down and rebuilt completely and its role re evaluated.”

Adham Hafez, contemporary dancer, expects the ministry’s role to be “managerial rather than curatorial.”

Hafez continues by explaining that the new minister “should shift the focus from being a hegemonic body supporting only state-approved cultural agendas, venues and artists, to working on the infrastructural problems generated by years of shifts of power where artistic practices are often hijacked as a playground for the sake of propaganda.”

Youssef Atwan, musician from band Like Jelly agrees that “the culture ministry should financially support artists through grants and international exchanges.”

Rapper Omar El-Shamei tops it with the additional proposal that the ministry’s support of cultural activities not involve exercising any form of censorship, stating “the ministry should not be involved in the productions themselves.”

Without providing names, El-Shamei believes that ”some people who work in or run the Cairo Opera House” have qualifications that can meet his expectations in the role of new minister.

Lutfi points to the waste of locations across the country that the ministry has under its umbrella, such as the so called “Palaces of Culture,” which have failed to play their designated role (the promoting of arts and culture) in the provinces.

Understandably, any reconstruction of the ministry should look into the need for such palaces and their purpose in serving Egypt’s cultural landscape.

The reactivation of cultural palaces, exhibition halls, theatres, and cinemas across the country is one of the priorities set forward by Ganzeer.

Over the course of its five decade lifespan, the ministry of culture has failed as an institution to develop a fruitful connection with the majority of Egyptian artists, with its activities overtly serving regime policies while targeting a small circle of art-lovers.

El-Teneen, street artist and graffiti creator who rose to significant popularity over the past two and a half years does not seem to be emotionally involved in the debate.

Remaining distanced, when asked about who would be capable of solving the ministry of culture versus Egypt’s culture equation, he mentions sarcastically cartoon character Sponge Bob Squarepants, as the only character that might  take advantage of “the full fledged revival of populist sentiment in the Egyptian psyche, has the capacity to cleansing [Egypt’s] culture of all Islamist influence and can bring Egyptian society back its cultural purity while upholding its traditional morals.”

El-Teneen’s statement may, at first, seem provocative. No doubt, however, that it points to the hard reality of the difficulty that will come with appeasing the plurality of voices with any one-sided solution. Accordingly, for many artists, it is not only about a new minister being appointed but also about defining strategies that can be applied in supporting the cultural versatility of Egypt.

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