Almost three years ago, artist Lara Baladi built what she called a “Tower of Hope” for a premiere arts festival held in one of Cairo’s poshest neighborhoods. Made of cheap bricks and concrete, the basic building materials of the sprawling slums that encircle the city, the tower was an obvious provocation, a forceful confrontation with the grim reality of how most Egyptians live. The festival’s curators were nervous enough about it that when first lady Suzanne Mubarak came to visit a nearby site, Baladi shrouded the work from view.
Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was a complicated place for artists, full of what they call “red lines” never to be crossed. But it was also full of opportunity, if you knew how to play the game, how to wrap messages in irony and bundle anger in layers of careful obfuscation. Baladi’s “Tower of Hope,” which included the surreal sound of symphonic music and braying donkeysplaying inside, never got her in trouble.
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.
In early June, in a space once controlled by the reviled Culture Ministry, Egypt will display a video of a key Bassiouny work, “30 Days Running in Place,” in which he attached sensors to his body and used computer manipulation to create a visual parable of kinetic stasis and a metaphor for his three decades of life under Mubarak.
“He was thinking he was running in place for 30 years of his life, 30 years of wasted energy under this regime,” Noshokaty says. The display of Bassiouny’s work will be a radical departure for the Egyptian pavilion, which in past years was often devoted to mediocre artists who were in favor with the Mubarak regime.
The sense of waste — of lives lost, time wasted and Egypt’s cultural ascendancy squandered — prevails among artists here. It seems to have fueled a sense of urgency.
Nagla Ezzat is among the younger artists who have turned to activism. A decade ago, when her drawings were on display in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, she too knew exactly where the red lines were: Avoid sensitive subjects, stay positive, never criticize the regime.
Today she is pouring her energies into publishing a comic book depicting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using the work of prominent Egyptian cartoonists. It is designed to teach basic lessons in democracy.
No matter what sort of government replaces the old regime, artists say they are determined to have more freedom and security. In the past, many arts groups were forced to work clandestinely, or register as nongovernmental organizations, which meant their activities were closely scrutinized for political content by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
Basma El-Husseiney, who runs an arts service organization in Cairo, says that a coalition of 80 cultural organizations from across the arts spectrum is working to suggest revisions to Egyptian law that would give arts groups independent, nonprofit status, similar to that enjoyed by arts groups in most Western countries.
That simple change, allowing them to work openly, accept donations without being taxed and create art without government intrusion, could spark a renaissance for the arts in Egypt.
“They don’t want to be left out,” she says.
Artists here are particularly engaged with influencing the future of the freedom of expression. The revolution is still up for grabs, they say, with powerful, entrenched interests dragging Egypt in different directions. They are grappling with huge historical uncertainties: What happened? Has anything changed? And they are turning to the literature of South America, films made in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, even French comic books from the 1960s, for answers. Baladi, who designed the Tower of Hope, speaks in almost mystical terms about the days she spent in Tahrir Square and what it all meant.
“It was like a magnetic field,” she says of the crowds that occupied Cairo’s city center. Beyond political revolution, she argues, Tahrir gave Egyptians a vision of religious and social unity that could refashion the nation’s most fundamental values. Baladi, a Christian with roots in Egypt and Lebanon, imagines the revolution transforming not just Egypt but the world.
“We are reaching the end of capitalism and individualism,” she contends. The revolution, if it isn’t crushed by a new regime, could offer a model of collective action to the world, she says.
The emotional extremes of the revolution — the tragic losses and the euphoria of success — have forced artists into the vanguard of introspection: They are groping to know who they are themselves so they can define what it means to be Egyptian.
Screenwriter Tamer Abdel Hamid says it’s imperative to enter the thoughts of his countrymen — something he could not have hoped to do in the Mubarak years, when, like other artists, he felt isolated, insecure and in the grip of what many describe as a national depression.
“How do they think? How do they talk?” he asks, looking at a throng of men in a street-side cafe quietly pulling long drags of sugary smoke from hookah pipes.
As he begins work on a new screenplay, Abdel Hamid, 33, speaks with excitement of trying to find a uniquely Egyptian acting style, a new grammar of Egyptian film, a new Egyptian form of narrative. Egypt, he says, had a vibrant and artistically substantial film industry in the 1940s and ’50s. One day, it will again.
Just blocks down the street, in another tea-and-shisha bar, a trio of intellectual friends is torn between cautious hope and the reflexive, witty cynicism that defines the Cairene character. One argues that Egypt’s ancient civilization and centuries of cultural productivity ensure it a vibrant future. Another lurches between a passionate desire to see Egypt shake off old cultural habits and an equally passionate fatalism.
Ahmad Soliman, who writes children’s books, stakes out a middle ground. Cultural change will take time and must begin with education: “The English have a saying,” he says. “It takes three generations to make a gentleman.” And it might take that long for Egypt to compete, once again, on the international stage.
Despite their pessimism, as thick as the smoke of cheap cigarettes, they would all agree with what Bassiouny, the fallen artist, wrote on one of his last Facebook postings: “I have seen an Egypt I’ve never seen before.”