Today, in a post-revolutionary nation still trying to figure out the parameters of freedom, Baladi isn’t making art; she devotes her time to an Internet radio startup that promotes post-Mubarak culture. Like many of Egypt’s top artists, she says it’s the wrong moment to be in the studio — there is too much at stake to lapse into making what she calls superficial “Polaroid” art that merely documents the revolution.
Many artists now argue that activism, not art, is the best way to reform their country. They see an opening, after decades of intellectual torpor and cultural rot, to lead Egypt back to the preeminent place it has often held as a center of Arab culture.
They are inspired by the death of Ahmed Bassiouny, a fellow artist who was shot during a pro-democracy demonstration on Jan. 28. He has emerged as their leading martyr — a multimedia pioneer who grabbed his camera when people took to the streets and died facing down supporters of Mubarak.
His death has become a symbol of selflessness among Egyptian artists, a selflessness that they are channeling into a deeper sense of nationalism and community.
Shady El-Noshokaty, a friend and teacher of Bassiouny’s, says he had a manic brilliance, born of a deep despair at the political hopelessness of life under Mubarak. He was always late and full of ideas, and often it seemed he was living on another planet.
He was also one of Egypt’s most talented experimental artists, who used electronics, performance and open-source computer software to create works that were radical by Egyptian standards.
“Ahmed was 31,” Noshokaty says. “He was born and he died within the regime. He didn’t know anything else. He was fed up, he had no hope.”
Noshokaty, an artist and professor of performance and visual art at the American University in Cairo, chokes up when thinking of Bassiouny’s two children.
“Now is not the time to produce work,” he says, waving away his own tears. “It’s time to understand.”
Noshokaty, 39, hasn’t been in his studio since before the revolution. Instead, he is preparing an installation for Egypt’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale devoted to Bassiouny’s work.