Arts & Culture

Vybz: Bringing Egypt’s Independent Artists to Life During the Pandemic

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Vybz: Bringing Egypt’s Independent Artists to Life During the Pandemic

Still from a short film titled OXYTOCIN|الاكسيتوسين.

Independent art in Egypt is often sidelined as many opt for the mainstream whether it’s Ramadan shows, popular music, or Blockbuster-esque films. The emphasis on theatre, poetry, short-films, and other manifestations of expression are left to independent artists, who often do not get the recognition they deserve.

Vybz aims to tackle this by showcasing independent artists and their work, and is founded by two theatre lovers, Ahmed El Hamzawy and Ahmed Ehab (Hobz), who were later joined by Ahmed Fouad and Nour El Desouki. Vybz are not only a production agency but instead, define themselves as “a collective of diverse artists providing a platform for creatives to bring their ideas to light, serving the culture’s needs.”

My first encounter with Vybz was this winter at an event called “Vybz Jam” hosted at Room Art Space in Garden City which, most notably, hosted two upcoming independent female artists, Lella Fadda and Felukah. The event showed me a side of Cairo I had never seen before – it was bustling and had sold out.

A month or so later, I attended a play co-produced by Kenoma Theatre Company and Vybz, ‘El Asanser’, an Egyptian adaptation of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Dumbwaiter’. Something about seeing Absurdist theatre come to life in Egyptian dialect makes it comedic in a way I never could have imagined. So much so that I went and saw it again. These are just a few of my experiences with Vybz, but what these experiences affirmed is that Vybz’s passion and detailed appreciation for art and it’s execution is exactly what Cairo needs.

El Asanser at Jesuit Theatre: Image courtesy of Moustafa Khalil

Since COVID-19, Vybz have had to shift from being a platform which relied on being events-based, to a fully online platform (at least for now). I reached out to Hobz (founder and managing director) to learn more about this shift, as well as to learn what it means to be a platform or collective for artists in Egypt.

What is Vybz? How did you start off and why?
Vybz is an online and offline platform for creatives to bring their ideas to lights. This is our mission, but deep down we’re just a bunch of artists who want to say something, who want to do something and are passionate about art to an extent that we would do nothing but it. Hamzawy and I started Vybz a little over a year ago; we had spent a month doing nothing but worthing on our first short film, Oxytocin, then after meeting up with different artists, it clicked. We decided we had to do something for creatives who graduate and try hard to find their way in the creative scene in Egypt. Unfortunately, they either end up doing something they don’t want to do, such as working in the advertisement industry, or leaving the art scene in its entirety. We started this initiative to help people express whatever it is they want through any form of art.

When you say “any form of art” what exactly do you mean?
We are diverse in the art that we highlight- not only do we create content in Egyptian Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (Fuṣḥā), and English, but we also have various segments: short films, spoken poetry (Hamzawy’s Kalam), theatre monologues (El Masrah Mamatsh), plays, as well as working with musicians to produce music videos and curating other live events.

What does art mean to you? What do you hope to achieve with making and showcasing art?
Art is a mix of emotions and feelings that we want people to feel – we can do this in so many ways. Whether it’s a piece of writing or a painting, it is trying to say what I feel, what the thoughts in my head are and expressing that in the most creative way possible. We release content like short films created by other independent artists to showcase them even if it doesn’t have a market. We only care about the content being good. Obviously we still want to be recognised and reimbursed, but it’s really not about the money for us. We want to put content out there for people to see, to be entertained by us.

What are some challenges faced by independent artists/creatives in Egypt? How have you coped with them, not only as creatives yourself, but as a platform which aims to showcase artists?
Many artists struggle with where to begin, this is why Vybz tries to help artists feel at home, but another aspect is the recognition. Independent artists never get the recognition they deserve from the masses, despite the fact that there are many initiatives and independent artists that create high quality content that deserves to be noticed. Arts and entertainment industry roles are just as important as other jobs – they’re not considered in the same way, despite it being extremely important and consumed by everyone every day. People would not have been able to manage lockdown if we didn’t have some form of art.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has affected every industry, but how do you feel it’s impacted the arts and entertainment industry?
Being on a stage or on a production set with people in real time is very different to having to do it all online, or only being in very small groups. Lockdown has been a push for us to focus more online, which will help us to grow our audience not only online, but also for when on-the-ground events return. People are very much online at the moment so we’re trying to give them a unique experience through our digital platform.

With no on-the-ground events, what are some strategies/approaches you’ve taken to try to keep your platform alive?
Getting paid for your art in Egypt is already hard- our main income came through ticketing so this is something we’ve had to adjust. We are reaching a point of sustainability since we already own our equipment and the content we produce requires zero budget- the only budget spending is on marketing. Nowadays, money is not our main priority, but producing high-quality consistent content is.

What are some of your current and upcoming projects?
We like to focus on collaborating with artists so now that it’s been taken away we’ve had to learn new techniques like solo segments. We’ve decided to do that firstly, by showcasing independent short films that are produced by independent filmmakers.

Our other major projects at the moment are Cinephile, Kalam, and our most recent project which we launched last week, Masraheyat. We’re also launching a segment called Man sa yarbah el audition this week.

Cinephile is a film review segment in collaboration with film director and cinema expert, Ahmed El Shamaa, who discusses a different category of films/TV series in each weekly episode.

Another collaboration is with Hamzawy, our creative director and co-founder (and also an actor) on Kalam. Kalam is an on-going experimental poetry segment held twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays at 8p.m. where Hamzawy speaks his thoughts in the form of colloquial poetry and performs them.

Just last week, we started Masraheyat which will be held every Wednesday and highlights different theatre artists as they recite a dramatic monologue on camera. This was started mainly because we feel that theatre is unrecognised in Egypt and not taken seriously. When it is, there is hardly room for competition, leaving smaller independent artists out. This project is close to our hearts because at the core of Vybz is our love for theatre and it’s how Hamzawy and I met.

Finally, Man sa yarbah el audition is a weekly segment on Vybz where actor Ahmed Achrafi gives audiences a few tips and tricks about acting, and how to become an actor in the cinema and TV industry. The segment airs every Tuesday at 6 pm.

Are there other people in the scene approaching art similarly? Who are they?
Many groups have emerged lately because of the artistic and cultural wave we are experiencing right now. For example, The Black Box, founded by two theatre graduates, gives artists the platform to perform live segments and monologues. Also, ShakeSphere, a cultural hub and theatre group who have coped really well with COVID-19 by producing online plays.

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Vybz are always looking for independent artists to showcase their work and collaborate with them – reach out if you’re interested! If not- pass their info on to a friend and show them some love and support.

Instagram: @vybzuniverse
YouTube: VYBZ
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vybzuniverse

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