Writing about art and culture has been a challenge the past few months. We were looking forward to reviewing the outdoor concerts that herald in the summer season, but this year people flocked to marches instead of performances to shout erhal in unison and not the lyrics of hit songs of their favourite bands. And while the political changes grabbed everyone’s attention Ramadan started, never an easy time for those of us who make their living covering the cultural scene of Egypt. Most venues suspend their normal activities or close down completely and while a fancy iftar or sumptuous sohour makes for good copy in a glossy, it does not help us fill the back page of the paper.
As political opponents dug in and built shanty towns of defiance, many venues halted their activities because the different protests often made parts of the city inaccessible. As Ramadan and the turmoil on the streets continued, cultural activities became few and far between. And as soon as Eid started anyone who could flocked to beaches to celebrate the end of the month-long fast and get away from the pressures of a city disrupted.
A few days after the feast the dispersal of the sit-ins commenced, followed by a curfew that was surprisingly strictly adhered to by the normally hard to reign in Cairenes. Any venue that still scheduled events or exhibitions closed its doors, leaving us to search high and low for anything to write about.
Today we are living through a tenuous status quo that still makes traffic close to impossible, a curfew that is pushed back but still has many people going straight home after work and very few venues hosting events. A favourite club has been scheduling concerts and DJ performances starting at 5 pm in a bid to provide some distraction, but they are one of the only ones still operational.
That is not to say that there is no new art being made in Egypt. The most obvious examples are the several photographers that emerged during these months of brutality and death who looked at the violent realities as they happened with the eyes of an artist. Their choice of focus, their ability to show the human face of death and destruction and their attention to detail that added a level of poignancy to their work warrants their images to appear on walls of galleries, even if the subject matter makes it hard to sleep at night.
Artists throughout the ages have often done their best work while suffering through a crisis, be it personal or political. Debilitating diseases, psychological or physical, torturous love affairs, oppression and censorship and death of loved ones all have inspired artists to express their torments in paintings, photographs, sculptures, poems, novels and music to name but a few. Museums are filled with the results of tortured souls and renditions of harsh times that have befallen a country; who can deny the brilliance of Dali’s Spain that symbolises the destruction and violence of the civil war.
So if we accept this premise as truth, it is safe to assume that those of us who love art are in for a treat in the near future. If in the past few months the art scene has been relatively quiet when it comes to public events, behind closed doors a frenzy of artistic activity and creation must be taking place in every form of expression known to man.
I am looking forward to newly formed bands and solo performers who will sing us the songs of a revolution revisited. Of writers and poets who find the exact phrases to describe the hope, disappointment, heroism and despair that have raged in our hearts. Of paintings showing us the price of liberation, of hopes dashed and power lost and gained. Sculptures that celebrate victories and show the pain of those left behind in mourning. Movies that re-enact the danger of the streets, of bullets both unerringly finding targets and near misses, of lives lost and saved. I cannot wait to have the polarised narrative broken down to subjective artistic truth.
Because the cultural expressions of the last few months have varied from Ramadan soaps that managed to sink to an unprecedented low level of content this year, movies that celebrate thuggish behaviour and disrespect of women and of course a parade of talk shows that feature hysterical hosts that do not even make the attempt at seeming impartial. The winner of cultural absurdity though is the image of General Al-Sisi appearing in sugary sweetness as icing on cupcakes and birthday cakes, a new low in these times lacking cultural quality.
I hope that the artistic community of Cairo will fulfil the function of artists throughout the ages; to reflect the realities of society in a variety of projects that will give voice to all the different factions in a country divided and damaged by violence. And not only because it will give me something to write about.