Art with a heart

In the extended family of Cairo’s districts, Mohandiseen is the glamorous high-rolling cousin who pretends that her illegitimate children do not exist: cross certain invisible dividing lines and giant concrete skyscrapers, sprawling neon highways and estival Arab tourists disappear suddenly to be replaced by Bantustans of donkeys and tuk-tuk filled poverty. The contrast is as striking, and as immediate, as Cinderella’s midnight.

Take the bridge at the Sudan Street end of Gamaat el Dowal and you will suddenly find yourself suddenly in one such area. Ard el Lewa is a maze of criss-crossing streets and tightly-packed grey concrete blocs whose poverty is obvious not so much by what is visible, but by what is missing: the streets are noticeably cleaner than in other areas of Cairo, but unmade; the children playing boisterously are seemingly happy, but barefoot.

Tucked away in these streets is Artellewa, a visual arts space created three months ago by artist Hamdy Reda, himself a son of Ard el Lewa, and German Verena Liebel. The converted 2.5 m² workshop open to the street serves as the exhibition area on the ground floor. It is currently showing ‘Human Being,’ a collection of photographs by Hany el Gowely. While I enjoyed the exhibition, I was more intrigued by the Artellewa project itself, particularly why its creators would choose to locate it so far from the traditional haunt of Cairo’s independent art scene, Downtown, and in this isolation risk condemning it to obscurity.

Reda says that the location was a deliberate choice: Artellewa’s creators wanted to avoid the Downtown and Zamalek areas already saturated with galleries and cultural centres, and instead serve a different audience, the residents of Ard el Lewa for whom art is a luxury. The space is a vehicle for cultural education offering – in addition to art exhibitions – lectures and film screenings on the topic of the exhibition showing, ‘meet the artist’ opportunities, independent Arab and foreign film screenings on Artellewa’s rooftop space and jamming sessions bringing together professional and amateur musicians. Support and training is given to burgeoning local artists in the form of Egyptian and foreign artist-led workshops where Ard el Lewa’s children and young people are taught photography, film making, video animation and painting. An open atelier is offered to young artists during the summer break, and every year one young Egyptian artist is given the opportunity to hold a first exhibition in the space. Musicians perform at each opening.

Artellewa is clearly driven by a passion for art and commitment to widening the artistic horizons of the Ard el Lewa community, and succeeds in fulfilling both objectives without compromising on either. Viewing art in the tiny exhibition area as the sounds of the street float in from outside is a unique if odd experience, which gives a sense of connection with the local community. The Artellewa office/flat in which Reda lives is in itself worth a visit in order to see his own amazing artwork which lines the walls.

It would be unfortunate if Artellewa’s relatively out of the way location has the effect of deterring potential visitors unwilling to make the trek through Ard el Lewa’s labyrinthine streets. One can only hope that as its reputation grows, more visitors are prepared to cross the divide, and visit what is an excellent project.

Why, in a city full of music and young people, are there so few bands performing original material? The question posed itself yet again on Friday evening when I found myself watching 4 Stix in action at the Sawy Cultural Wheel, in an audience composed almost exclusively of the AUC graduating class of 2012.

The band itself delivered a workaday if enthusiastic performance distinguished only by lead singer Waleed Mansour’s strong vocals. The set was predictably eclectic and drawn mostly from the play list of a traditional British pub band, including the mandatory No Woman No Cry complete with backing singers swaying in a synchronised Rita Marley manner. T-shirts and other goodies were dispensed to the crowd who were in raptures, but it was altogether a disconcerting experience to watch Armani-clad pre-pubescent youngsters rocking out to Blue Suede Shoes. While it is clear that there exists both a strong interest in rock/pop music and talented individuals with the musical ability to knock out covers, something appears to go wrong in the creative process when it comes to original music. As a result the music ‘scene’ is limited to bands such as the dormant Track 6 and the omnipresent Westelbalad, both of which perform original material, and a plethora of cover bands who ensure that Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits will live on and on and on in Cairo.

I have no idea about copyright, but my father’s incessant doom-filled warnings of court cases, apoplectic editors and being cast out of the Egyptian journalistic community five minutes after ‘arriving’ compel me to mention that the above was published in al Ahram Weekly. No trumpet blowing intended.

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