We Need Mentors

A conversation with Amira Hanafi

In June 2013, I launched a page on Facebook to share opportunities for artists in Egypt. I had recently taught a workshop for building an artistic career: writing an artist statement, putting together a project proposal, and compiling a budget. People taking part in the workshops had a common question: Where can I find opportunities for which I’m eligible to apply? I put together a document with some links to sites and sent it around, and it was the beginning of what would later grow into an online platform with more than ten thousand followers, mostly local. When the members of K-oh-llective asked me to write this piece and approached me as the founder of “Opportunities for Egypt Artists”, they wondered, “What would drive an artist to set up a platform for sharing information?” There’s no straightforward response; the answer is probably as knotty as my creative practice, as contradictory as my personality, as skewed as my life path.

I wrote a short text that told the brief and personal story of founding the platform and sent it to K-oh-llective. Then, Nada ElKalaawy, Rania Atef, and I met on Zoom to have a conversation, with questions sprung from my text. What follows is a transcription of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

—Amira Hanafi

Rania: So, you believe there’s a deficiency in Cairo’s culture scene. Do you think there are few opportunities? A lack of institutions and art spaces? Is it a closed community that doesn’t engage with the public? Or all of that?

Amira: The scene in Egypt is under-resourced. All the things you mentioned are surface problems that appear from underneath, but the problem that’s much deeper is that there isn’t enough investment to support a healthy ecosystem. So, the things that you see tend to be very unstable and there’s a lot of competition and not the healthy kind.

Rania: That isn’t just a deficiency, there’s a crisis! Even with all the embassies and cultural institutions that can be approached for support, none of that can replace local funding.

Nada: I think we’re even lacking private investments, there isn’t a lot of patronage to support young artists and initiatives. I think like Amira said, the support is what could make all of these things better. It could provide more art spaces, better education, hence more opportunities, and a richer art scene. The problem is that there is nothing stable. Even if there is private funding, it comes around once and it doesn’t go on for long.

Rania: It’s temporary. All the funds are impermanent. They don’t make up for the kind of funding that could build an infrastructure, the kind the state could provide. This is why we seek opportunities abroad. We’re constantly looking to build relationships with the West because that’s the only way to either get funds or travel and exhibit.

Amira: But there’s another thing as well besides the problem of resources. People aren’t willing to organize themselves in stable and long-term ways -perhaps like what you’re currently doing- because any kind of structure that requires this kind of self-organization has an enemy in Egypt.

Nada: Do you mean competition?

Amira: No, I mean the political environment. It doesn’t allow for it, it leaves you on your own. It isn’t easy to organize with other people. There’s a lack of trust. It’s a big problem. This results in a lack of organizations of any kind, because it becomes very hard. Can I trust this person? Who will I work with? How can we become stable?

Rania: I don’t think it’s just political. I also feel that in practicing art there is a kind of preferable individuality. Collective work or work that involves many individuals requires a lot of effort, even in communication. For example, we are now five [people working together]. To reach a decision, all five of us have to agree. When I’m by myself, I can come to a decision alone, faster. I think working together makes it harder.

Amira: That’s really well put, the way you put it about communication. It’s about these kinds of skills that you acquire if you are encouraged to organize or there is a culture of organizing. I’m not going to say that there’s any place in the world at large where they're really spectacular at it, but that sort of thing we really don’t have very much of over here. If we could do this, if we could organize ourselves, I feel like the resources would follow. Maybe they go hand in hand.

Nada: I also think multiple voices can have more of an impact than one voice, in terms of seeking opportunities or funds.

Rania: Since we’re on the topic of organization...I have a question. Did you feel that the platform you made helped you with self-organization, even though you were just one person? I mean you were an artist and you were managing something completely different, so…

Amira: No, I don’t think so, in terms of organizing or creating something with other people. It was more about the mobilization of resources. People asked: Where’s the information? I have the information, I’ll share the information, and my hope is that this will mean that more people in Egypt will get more opportunities, and this will make more and better art.

Nada: Do you feel like the platform helped your practice as an artist? Were you ever looking at these opportunities that you were sharing?

Amira: To be honest, I told myself at first that if I do this, I will have a regular practice of checking open calls. But the more I did it, the more I realized that the time that I would be spending filling out applications to support my own practice, I actually spent searching for opportunities and sharing them. I started to feel that it was actually working against me, like I’m working against myself. But you know, I just kept doing it, because maybe I like to see myself as generous. Maybe that gives me a better feeling than if I had an exhibition.

Nada: To build on this feeling, did you ever think, I don’t want it to be anonymous anymore?

Amira: Yeah. Maybe… you know, but the anonymity isn't just for this page. There’s other work I’ve been involved in and there’s this culture of quietness about work. I mean, some people and organizations take a different strategy of being very public … And there was a time when Facebook itself would ask me; “Do you want to list yourself as the manager of the page?” I decided not to. But I think, when I’m talking about a culture of silence, it’s maybe not in art so much as in civil society, this place where I’m also working, of wanting to accomplish the work rather than have recognition. Perhaps because recognition comes with exposure and vulnerability which is not always desirable. One philosophy says that it will hurt your work.

Rania: I think the art scene has a discrete character. There’s fear. There are barriers … or a general attitude, the attitude of not saying anything aloud.

Nada: And you think twice before you ask questions because of this secrecy. If you’re going to ask an artist/curator about their work for example, you have to really consider your question and see if it’s something that they would want to answer. Would they even want to talk about it? Would they get back to me? I think there’s also a lot of rejection in the art world, you expect this sort of disregard often, and so you hold back from approaching a person because you think it might not be appreciated. It makes you hold back and ask yourself if it's worth putting in any effort for it. Maybe that’s part of it.

Amira: Maybe, maybe. It sounds to me like you are missing mentorship. And me too, by the way, I am missing it. You are also describing the same thing that I was talking about, this culture of silence. I don’t know whether we can discover the root causes of it or whether we don’t, and not worry about it, but I do feel like it’s everywhere.

Rania: Going back to knowledge sharing, you gave workshops in fundamental skills for artists; how to write a statement, that sort of thing. Did you ever think about offering this service on your platform?

Amira: Definitely, I thought about a lot of things! But I’m one person, so it was never possible to do it all, if I was to do it well. And I think that’s why this page stayed for a long time and has like 10,000 followers that are actually following. Like, it isn’t just a number. But I think doing it well, staying focused on what I post and how often, just doing that one thing well, that’s the success of it. If I had tried to do everything, it would just become garbage. You can’t do everything well.

Rania: Honestly, it’s hard. We’re five people, and sometimes we feel somewhat overwhelmed with the tasks we have to accomplish beside our own practices.

Amira: Yeah, I would suggest that you ask yourselves what you really want to accomplish well, rather than trying to accomplish everything. I know you probably look at the scene and you think it needs a lot of work, but better that you just fill a couple of needs in a really good way than try to fill every one. Because it isn’t possible, and you aren’t going to do it well, and you’re going to collapse in the end.

Nada: I think that’s why we’re just focused on having this accessibility to resources online right now. We won’t take big steps of having a space or hosting exhibitions or organizing a residency program even though we’d love to because, like you said, these things as they keep expanding, if there isn’t enough funding then it’s very likely that it could just collapse. We don’t want K-oh-llective to just go on for like a year and then die off.

Amira: Exactly. And if you know that you’re only going to have funding for a year, what can you build in one year that could continue to have benefit and be a resource? Also, part of it is thinking about partnerships, and this I think is another thing that suffers. This is very important, actually, you know this idea about trust that I was talking about earlier, this inability to trust each other. Partnerships are essential. That’s how you build an ecosystem. Everyone will collapse if they are only by themselves. I’m talking like this and it isn’t what I did. You see that the page isn’t working anymore, because I left and now I don’t have that space anymore to be able to manage it. I could have had people with me, that would make it more sustainable, but I only sustained it out of my own energy and now I can’t do it anymore and so it no longer exists. If there was a way that people were more partnered together, with resource sharing, you know like we share space, we share staff, all kinds of things can be shared, then we can support each other. But there’s a lot that’s against that. There’s a lot that’s outside of our control. Outside of our control as individual people and small organizations in Egypt that makes it so difficult. The longer you’re in it the more you’re going to understand what I’m talking about. Or maybe you understand already.

Rania: You mentioned that anything can be shared. When any young artist is starting out, they need to be equipped with tools you used to teach in workshops, like how to write a bio, a statement, a proposal. These skills take more time to develop than usual due to the lack of dialogue and conversations between the art community in Egypt. They aren’t discussed comfortably while being vital for emerging artists. Would you agree with me on that?

Nada: Also where are they taught in Egypt? At the Faculty of Fine Arts? I don’t believe so.

Rania: No, not at all.

Amira: Do you see that artists outside of Egypt get these skills? From where?

Nada: I studied in London, so yes I learnt about them in my BA and MA. You keep discussing your statement. I mean, some of these skills, you need them very early on, and once you have the basics of how to structure a statement for example and what kind of points are needed to be discussed, or how the bio works, that’s it, you just keep restructuring/editing as your work evolves.

Amira: Exactly, exactly, you just need to know what it is. Yeah.

Nada: You used to run workshops for them, otherwise I don’t know where else you could get them in Egypt, unless it’s online. Then you have to do a lot of research.

Amira: I was educated in the States, and I only did art as my graduate degree, but we didn’t talk about proposals, like writing them, or funding, getting grants.

Nada: We didn’t either, but the statement, bio, and the CV were important, because you knew you needed those when applying for graduate studies, a travel grant or an exhibition for example.

Rania: I feel like grant proposals are extremely important. Not every artist sells; not everything an artist makes can be sold, there isn’t always a market so it’s an important thing to know how to seek money elsewhere. It isn’t something that is taught. You have to get it through experience and by asking around. It is a long process where you sit down, write endless grant proposals and wait for an opportunity to come around after applying. I think these are important tools that are not necessarily known widely.

Amira: When I was working as the manager of an art space in Egypt, I put out an open call and I received maybe twenty proposals. Only two of them were from Egypt and the rest were from Europe. I thought, oh, nobody knows how to write a proposal, so I must tell them how. So one solution was to give workshops, which is what I did. Another solution perhaps was to not ask for a proposal, or ask for it in a different way. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but some applications now allow for artists’ proposals in the forms of short videos, pictures, or sketches, instead of this institutionalised kind of writing. And maybe we also need to think about that. Maybe this way of proposal writing is actually the problem, and it isn’t that we need to learn it but that we need to unlearn it.

Nada: I think even in videos they expect you to touch upon things that you would be discussing in a proposal, like delivering your idea, talking about the medium, time frame, budget needed and how you see it coming together. I think I agree with you. I don’t think it has to be in the form of a text, but I think there are some points that you have to address to convince the other person to fund your project. It can't be as simple as “Well, I’m just going to make a painting.”

Amira: Well, actually, at a certain point you can. Once you’ve established yourself as someone who “makes good art,” you don’t have to play the game anymore, you’ll say “I’m going to do it” and then they throw the money at you. If you win and you get in this small, tiny, elite group. But, but... this is to say that maybe we should try to emulate this elite group but on another level. Like instead of us saying to each other, “You have to give me a proposal,” like, as a person who’s thirty years old and running a tiny little art space, why was I asking for a formal proposal? Why didn’t I just say, “Call me on the phone or send me a Facebook message and we’ll sit at the ahwa and I’ll listen to your ideas.”

Nada: Would you have felt more comfortable with a written proposal? Does it make your job easier? Like would you rather receive hundreds of written proposals or hundreds of video calls? I’m thinking about it from the other perspective, too.

Amira: It’s a kind of hierarchy. For example, as a director of an art space, if I accept the proposal, I would work with the artist to turn it into another proposal in order to get funding and complete the project. I would probably not have the funding ready. I would announce an open call then choose the proposal that I not only like and want to happen, but I see someone else funding it. It’s like a terrible loop. So, what format do I want this proposal to come in? The format that will make it easiest for me to send this proposal to another funder, and that funder will also have another funder till it reaches the top funder. And at the end of the day, there’s like three financers, like, there’s just a handful of them, and they’re the ones that eventually make decisions about what a proposal is, what it includes, and sometimes those funders are governments, and they have crazy, crazy, crazy kinds of details that they want. So it all funnels down, it keeps going all the way down till it reaches the artist. So if we think about it, the artist is proposing to the government of Europe.

You know this proposition you want me to make, a solution? Maybe it’s that part of us should be thinking about how to escape from this regime. How do we build something so that we don’t need to participate in that anymore? And what would proposals look like outside of that regime? This is why I think of something like Nile Sunset Annex, where it’s like: we own everything. I rent this apartment and I need about 1/5 of the rent for this room and we’re going to have an exhibition in that room, and when people come we’ll ask them for this many Egyptian Pounds to buy drinks. How can we imagine organizations that just sustain themselves, that don’t need external funding or don’t need as much? That’s my proposition.

Amira Hanafi is a poet, cultural worker, and artist working with language as a material. Her work uses systems, games, performance, and publishing to bring together communities of real and fictional characters who speak, interact, and sometimes exchange identities.

 🇵🇸 We Will Not Stand by in Silence: ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories ✦ 🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.
🇵🇸We Will Not Stand by in Silence:  ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction  ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.