Featured People: Reem Khedr

Throughout the summer we accompany the launch of our new Idea Camp call with highlights on the works of former Idea Camp participants showing the depth and breadth of our grantees’ networks. You can apply for the 2017 Idea Camp until 20 September 2016.

Reem Khedr took part in the 2015 Idea Camp with an idea called “City Castles / Invisible Shadows”, with which she proposed tackling two challenges: using unused and sometimes decaying buildings as platforms for young artists to practice and perform their art. We took the opportunity to catch up with Reem when she was in Amsterdam in June to take part in a public discussion on How to keep the public space public? In this featured people, Reem tells us about her work in Egypt, on the prototype toolkit for organising community art projects and on her memories on the Idea Camp.

Reem Khedr presents her idea at the Idea Camp 2015

[...] yes, we believe in the transformational power of self organised communities, and yes, we believe arts and culture are means to awaken those.
— Reem Khedr

There are a few things you should understand about Egypt, and the public role art used to play in our society. Storytellers were always present in the streets of towns in the Nile Delta, music could be heard on all corners, and during the evening magicians would come out. But ever since Nasser’s rule, these public arts gave way to a cultural policy which highlighted governmentally backed arts. As a result, arts retreated into governmental subsidised theatres and then became closed, bureaucratic and sometimes corrupt. Many of these theatres did not attract audiences and then were sold to private project developers.

Naturally, underground culture existed outside these strata. Graffiti flourished in Cairo, drawing was popular and music was always there. During the Uprising of 2011 these subcultures found their way to the public and wider audiences got to know these fields of art. A cultural awakening followed, and Egyptian people felt culture once again belonged to them.

Reem Khedr in Amsterdam, June 2016. Photo by Nicola Mullenger

Reem Khedr in Amsterdam, June 2016. Photo by Nicola Mullenger

Mahatat for Contemporary Art was founded during this period. Our first public performances took place in the metros of Cairo. We performed mime, or had dancers showcase contemporary dance. We even screened videos on a square next to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. You have to understand, security boundaries were not as narrow then as they are now. The vibe was completely different.

A second phase started when in the Dokki district a community arts project evolved out of the curiosity of an artist to get to know stories of neighbours – stories on the trees. The stories were shared, the trees were decorated and the neighbourhood gained a new sense of belonging.

This for us was a threshold we departed from. Now we only work with communities, for we want to and we need to.  We want to because we want to contribute to the wellbeing of communities, to showing them other lives are possible, to introducing them to arts and culture, and we need to do so because they are the ultimate protection to security forces.

So if we want to roll out a project we first scout a location. We don’t want to use places where too much noise is around, but we also don't want to make too much noise in quiet surroundings. We don’t want to block streets – life for those not involved should be able to go on. When we have a list of a few locations we start talking to people in the neighbourhood and, most importantly, to local initiators whether they be artists or social activists, sometimes even with local NGO’s. Together, we discuss how the project and eventually a performance should look like. Then comes the process of recruiting volunteers. We train the volunteers on practical and technical skills, so they are prepared for the performance as well. Allowing a process of six weeks can have a longer resonance in a community. Also because this sense of community grows within a neighbourhood during the preparatory process, as they are involved. So it happened that merchants and shopkeepers removed all their cars for an event to happen. And it helps us in another way: If content is considered risky by security forces (whom we do inform on our events) and they show up seeing an audience, mostly it is ok. This happened – for example - during a joint event with ‘Save Mansoura’ when we worked with a heritage group opposing gentrification. The security forces were cooperative during that event.

We collect all these ways of working in our upcoming project #cityshadows2016 which will take place in Port Said. There we work together with a network called ‘Port Said Ala Qdeemo’ (which roughly translates as ‘Port Said as it used to be’) and our project will happen on 16 and 17 July. During this event we will gather the last data for the toolkit we will publish in August, as to include reflections on the prototype, and to have it translated into Arabic. In this toolkit we include information on stakeholder involvement, awareness campaigns, how to publish online, how to organise DIY and blog instructions. This toolkit is what our young generations need.

A collection of images shared on Facebook by audiences of the project What is an abandoned space, part of #cityshadows2016

A collection of images shared on Facebook by audiences of the project What is an abandoned space, part of #cityshadows2016

The Uprising of 2011 gave all of us hope, but that is gone now, together with the channels for youngsters to express themselves, even though some social media outlets do exist. We like to show them something is happening, to show them they can make it happen themselves. It doesn't need be political, art in itself has the power of opening up horizons. So yes, we believe in the transformational power of self organised communities, and yes, we believe arts and culture are means to awaken those.

We were reinforced in these ideas during our participation in the Idea Camp in 2015. Since even if I might live in what some people call another continent, our troubles resemble one another. Talking to other Idea Makers helped us realise we were on the right track and during the Idea Camp we all learned from another. We learned a lot on legal measures and how to deal with restrictions on those for example. The grant we received afterwards allowed us to recruit a researcher who helped us to build the toolkit.

We hope the toolkit will help us prepare ourselves and the young generation for the times to come. Because for us the time of thinking to influence city authorities is passed, we lost all hope in our authorities. But so did young generations in Spain and look what is happening. With them we share the idea that public space is owned by the people and that the right to the city should be exercised. Exercised by communities, not by individuals. Because we believe in the power of communities. In the power of communities to move time. For in the long run all could be different.

Reem Khedr, Amsterdam, June 2016

Learn more:

  • You can view the “How to keep the public space public?” discussion which took place in Amsterdam online.
  • In this article by Heba el Cheikh you can discover more on Egypt’s community art scene.
  • Apply for the 2017 Idea Camp until 20 September 2016.