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Survival of the Artists: How Coronavirus is Affecting Egypt’s Arts and Culture Sector

March 16, 2020
The Cairo Opera House. Image credit unknown.

As opposed to the majority of the world’s population, ‘cancelled’ is the ‘c’ word that most artists fear to hear these days. With the new COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic on the rise across the globe, more and more governments have called for the closure of various venues and cancellation of events that would involve large group gatherings. Earlier this week, this has also been implemented in Egypt. 

It started slowly at first, with only a few venues cancelling some events here and there, but, surely enough, the cancellations spread across the arts and culture sector almost as readily as the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Although these measures are necessary, it has undoubtedly caused an added layer of fear and uncertainty for those who make a living out of sharing their art with people. 

For artists, especially those in the performing arts (actors, dancers, singers), their livelihoods largely depend on large group gatherings – from exhibitions and public performances of all sorts to concerts – and these cancellations therefore come with a heavy financial impact on such artists.

Major Venues and Festivals: Cancelled

Earlier in March, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture decided to suspend all artistic and cultural activities that would involve large groups of people as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As a result, the Cairo Opera House was among the first cultural venues to release a statement that it would suspend any shows, concerts and activities until further notice. The reputed institution, and one of the most popular in the country, went on to say that those who had already purchased tickets for any of their shows in advance, would be refunded. 

And then the domino effect struck. El Sawy Culturewheel cancelled their upcoming shows and events, as did cultural institutes such as Goethe. D-CAF (the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival), one of Egypt’s most anticipated cultural events of the year, also released a statement on March 11 announcing the postponement of this year’s festival which was scheduled to commence on March 20.

D-CAF is an annual arts festival which is jam-packed with both local and international arts-related performances, exhibitions, concerts, screenings and workshops. It is the first international multi-disciplinary arts festival of its kind in Egypt, and this year would mark its 9th edition. 

Reem Allam, D-CAF’s Executive Manager, talks of the various major implications postponing the festival has had on both those who were organizing the festival in Egypt, the local and international artists and guests who were invited to perform or attend, and the organizations who were providing funds for the festival.

“This was one of the most international editions,” Allam says to Egyptian Streets, “after the outbreak, we started receiving emails from our international delegates saying they can’t come because there are no flights, or they are in quarantine or because of various restrictions.”

Although they had the safety of audiences, artists and everyone involved as their top priority, and so the postponement of the festival was a necessary measure to be taken, it was still a difficult decision to take.

“[Postponing the festival] was a tough decision because people don’t really realize how much effort and work is put into organizing a festival before it happens; people don’t get that you actually spend 11 months preparing for this one month,” comments Allam – from scouting artists to ensuring their availability on certain dates, and then eventually signing contracts, agreeing on finances and booking flights and accommodations.

With the magnitude of a festival like D-CAF, the financial implications were massive for all those involved. “There is financial loss – and funds for the independent arts sector in Cairo are already very limited,” she explains, “And of course opportunities in the arts sector here in Egypt are limited if you’re a dancer or working in theatre, so D-CAF is one of the main opportunities for these artists to make money, and also offers them exposure.”

Poster announcing postponement of D-CAF’s 9th edition which was scheduled to commence March 20. Image credit: D-CAF (Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival) official Facebook page.

Smaller Scale Performances, Venues and Workshops: Cancelled

It was only a matter of time until more and more small-scale performances, cultural venues and studios that offer various workshops would hop aboard the cancellation train. Public performances such as a contemporary dance performance entitled ‘Sideways Rain’ – which was scheduled to take place March 17- got cancelled, Bahgaga – a local musical group – had all their upcoming concerts cancelled, and Zawya Cinema – an art-house cinema venue that screens both local and international indie and blockbuster films – also released a statement during the weekend to announce that all their screenings and programs are on hold until further notice. 

In addition to this, local children’s theatre venue Sitara is also on-hold as a result of schools cancelling field trips and ultimately being called to shut down for two weeks.

All sorts of venues that offer visual and performing arts workshops such as Luke Lehner Studios have started cancelling or postponing their scheduled workshops and programs – some even mid-program. Exhibition spaces such as Cairopolitan, have also recently released statements that they would close their venue until further notice and cultural venues such as Darb1718 have even cancelled the one day workshops they offer.  

Darb1718’s announcement of the cancellation of all their events. Image credit: Darb1718’s official Facebook page.

In a country such as Egypt, in which taking the decision to work in the arts is in itself still considered somewhat taboo and is therefore difficult enough a profession to sustain oneself through as is, the continuous cancellation of programs and events is taking an even bigger toll than usual on Egyptian artists. It is, of course, a necessary measure to be taken – and it is being implemented across various other sectors such as sporting facilities and fitness venues as well – however, it is important to stay aware of the fact that this necessary precaution has massive repercussions that most people are oblivious to. 

“All of [my shows] have been cancelled. It’s a price we all have to pay, it’s worldwide, and unfortunately this is a profession that depends on the gathering of people,” comments actor and singer Weam Essam, “It’s not something we can do from home on a laptop, so yes, we are among the first people to be directly affected, but everyone will be affected eventually – both financially and mentally.”

Essam however is choosing to have an optimistic outlook on the situation, going on to say, “But I will take the opportunity to take a break, because as artists, we do get very drained and we work everyday constantly; I will take this time to appreciate the small things in life.”

Surviving Both Corona and Cancellations

With other countries across the globe going through the exact same predicament, at times like these it is necessary to observe the proactivity being taken elsewhere. Keeping in line with measures being taken to contain the spread of coronavirus as best as possible, doesn’t have to mean life coming to a halt – and certainly doesn’t have to mean a halt in creating art.  

While for most people, a work-from-home policy has been implemented by various companies, the situation is slightly more complicated for artists. In America, more and more performing artists are exploring the various ways they can shift some aspects of their work online, and webinars are being created to discuss the possibilities of working virtually, how artists can help and support each other and what resources or aid are available for artists and freelancers during this time. 

Photo from Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘La Bohème’. Image credit: metopera.org (The Metropolitan Opera official website).

Even various organizations and enterprises are starting to shift to the online world in order to accommodate to the situation at hand, and famous museums from around the world have started offering free online virtual tours. New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (The MET) is also offering free live streaming of some of their most famous operas.

In Germany, the government has even allocated financial support towards performing artists and freelancers. Although something like this may be difficult for Egypt, as there are surely more important matters at hand to which to allocate funds towards, it is still necessary to be as proactive as possible about the situation we find ourselves in. 

The Inherent Need for Art

It is in fact at times like these, when art is most necessary. Now more than ever, people on lockdown veer towards films and TV shows for entertainment, and more books are being read. Not to mention the beautifully heartwarming videos that have spread across social media showcasing how Italians on lockdown are keeping their spirits high by coming together from their balconies at home in order to make music, sing, and dance.

People look out of their apartment windows, play music, as part of a flashmob organized to raise morale during Italy’s coronavirus crisis in Rome, Italy, March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Yara Nardi via Ahram Online.

As famously quoted by Robin Williams’ character John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Art breathes life into all of us, because time has proved it to be the purest form of human expression; it is universal and it ties us all together.

Egypt has always had a strong oral tradition, and perhaps it wouldn’t be bad to explore this further at this time. With the already existing lightness of spirit of the Egyptian population, it will not be difficult for us to come together and make the most out of a dark situation. However, let’s not forget the artists among us, who already give us so much and yet, are amongst the most harshly impacted – and at times, the most forgotten.

Now is the time to put our creativity to the test, and find innovative ways to make and share art – especially when, now more than ever, the beauty that art has to offer is gravely needed. Shows, events and concerts may be cancelled for the time being, but art can never be cancelled.

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