“Everything comes to an end, Artellewa has come to an end, and I have nothing else to tell you,” Hamdy Reda tells progrss, refusing to elaborate further. Reda, a visual artist who has lived almost his entire life in Ard el-Lewa (literally “the Major General’s Land”), established Artellewa in 2007, to receive residents of the neighborhood who want to learn more about art and make a living from their own handicrafts. Between November 25 and December 10, 2017, Artellewa collaborated with CLUSTER (Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research) to host an exhibition showcasing sketches of the replanning of Ard El-Lewa’s flats and houses. This was the last exhibition before Artellewa closed its doors for good.
Due to the informality of Ard el-Lewa, an area near the outskirts of Greater Cairo, it is not known how many people call it home. The construction of the informal neighborhood dates back to the 1980s, at the peak of urban growth in the Egyptian capital.
In a 2015 interview with Multitudes, Reda delves into the socioeconomics of Ard el-Lewa and explains the reasons that he chose to open Artellewa in his neighborhood. “[Ard El-Lewa] has some low-middle class [individuals] and it has some different paradoxes in the social levels between poor people, working class, employees and teachers,” he said. Reda added that some businessmen in Ard El-Lewa have family that belong to lower-income classes, and that they prefer to live in the neighborhood instead of moving to wealthier districts in the capital, which diversifies the socio-economics of Ard El-Lewa.
Before choosing to set up Artellewa in Ard El-Lewa, Reda asked himself: “Where do I want to live? Am I going to continue living here or do I move to another place?” After touring Egypt and countries abroad, the visual artist found that his ties with Ard El-Lewa were only strengthened. “I like [the] neighbourhood; it has an influence on me, as an artist. I am enjoying being here economically, socially, and culturally,” he said. “There are a lot of colors around, of different people. There is a big diversity here, I don’t see it even in Zurich.”
He considered moving to Europe, but living there would “eat up his years,” as he put it. “People living there are just living to survive,” he continued. In Egypt, his alternative was to move into the busy and archaically established districts of Downtown or Zamalek. “[They are] very heavy for me. [They aren’t] joyful, [they’re more of a] headache; it is nice to be there from time to time to visit a friend, to work a bit, but not to live in.”
Weighing out his options with his needs and preferences in mind, he decided that Ard el-Lewa was best for him. After settling on where he wanted to live, another question popped into Reda’s mind: “What I am doing here?” Would his profession be relevant to this neighborhood? How could he serve his home with his art and talents? Reda founded Artellewa in search of an answer to these questions.
With six staff members on board, Artellewa provided a rapport between the people of Ard El-Lewa and art, as well as support and training to burgeoning local artists in the form of workshops led by Egyptian and foreign artists.
“This is a space for locals,” he said. “Not all the people are interested in what I am doing here, but there are some who know about it, like it and enjoy activities I am running here,” he reflected. “There are others who have nothing to with what I’m doing, who just like it because they see different faces, meet foreigners or others Egyptians who are not familiar with this neighborhood.”
Artellewa aimed to connect Ard El-Lewa and its residents to the broader culture of the city and the world through art. It also created a space for local and foreign artists to discuss, interact, and experiment with the local community and environment. The creative hub created a space for dialogue between artists and a segment of society that was often left out of the conversation.
Take for example, the “Cairo Dish-Painting Initiative.” In late 2014, Artellewa invited Jason Stoneking, an American artist and author based in Paris, for a three-month stay. Stoneking saw dusty satellite dishes on rooftops in Cairo as a beautiful metaphor for “an individual communication channel between the home of an individual’s family and outer space.” He decided to launch an initiative to lead Artellewa’s young artists to turn their dusty satellite dishes – often regarded as an eyesore – into colorful pieces of art.
Prior to 2011, which is when Reda founded Artellewa, it was not easy to found such an establishment since it was out of the ordinary – it disrupted the status quo. “And because of this, it faced a lot of challenges. Challenges that pushed me to think on a monthly basis about closing this project.” It didn’t, however, get any easier after the January 25 Revolution of 2011.
“Through these years, Artellewa grew, especially after using a little part of my building, I rented another bigger venue next to it.” Reda went through an acute financial crisis, struggling to finance his project. Then he thought to himself, “This is a mental space, not a commercial venue for events. It doesn’t need a lot of money to survive, it needs just energy and people who believe in it; so during these years I met lot of people who I shared my thoughts with and in turn gained from their feedback which helped grow my idea of Artellewa and make it more powerful, and clearer.”
This allowed Reda to sustain his project and serve the artistic community that he supported. No financial or managerial crisis would stop his idea from growing and continuing – not even a crisis with the government could do that, Reda told himself.
“Losing money or losing space doesn’t matter. What really matters is spreading the word and [being] able to continue doing something and communicating with others,” he said two years before he shut his project down for good.