by Michelle Chen
A smile blooms on the round face of a middle-aged man as his home begins to glow. For the past three days, he has watched volunteers, including me, spread paint over the front wall, washing the drab cement slab in a torrent of rainbow stripes and geometric shapes.
We work and sweat contentedly, surrounded by children who color in purple bubbles alongside us and never tire of crying, ‘What’s your name?’ in English. The wall fills up: a lone crude window is subsumed in a human-sized purple triangle, and paralleled on the right by a pink triangle containing an imaginary window, which looks out on a landscape that one of the inhabitants instructively scribbled for us on paper. As I put the last dots of color on a scene of a pink sailboat drifting before a forest with snow-capped mountains, the man offers a gentle suggestion.
He shows me his rumpled sketch and points to birds he had originally penciled in. Numbed from the heat, I breathe and brave a few more minutes of equatorial swelter to slap more paint on the wall. The man’s vision is complete, with a flock of violet droplets ascending into a foreign night sky.New bursts of color are cast over the village every year, but they still seem almost accidental, contrasting brilliantly with stark beaches, factories and shimmering fish stalls.
Still, the artwork is deliberate, though spontaneous. Since 2000, a group of artists has worked with the local community to infuse El Max with an experimental harmony of art and life.
The creative lifeblood of the town pumps from the Gudran Project, an international artistic collective that mixes concepts of culture and development into an indulgently blurred pastiche. The Alexandria-based group was founded by artists, writers, filmmakers and dramatists who wanted to encourage artists to "abandon the galleries” and connect art to both the streets and the souls of Egyptian communities.
Gudran’s name means “walls” in Arabic, but the group prides itself on building structures that unite rather than divide.
El Max is an incubator for an unprecedented development model, centered not on political agendas or economic institutions, but rather, creativity in the raw: a child's colored handprint, the strum of a guitar at a smoky street cafe, a bejeweled embroidery stitch between a woman’s palms.
Abdalla Diaf, Gudran’s program organizer, points to a natural tie between culture and development. Art, according to Gudran, reveals common ground by appealing to senses that span all social and economic strata.
“Development is just learning how to accept change,” says Daif, who also works in contemporary theater. To cope with social and cultural upheaval, “How can you reach change without imagination?”On a typical afternoon, the sun-baked corridors of Gudran’s simple brick building bustle with children crafting chaos in art workshops. In a quieter corner, young women gather for sewing training – a rare opportunity for gaining skills and independent income.
Gudran has threaded its philosophy throughout the town with public-health outreach campaigns, an Internet hub for youth, literacy training, and performances of contemporary and traditional music and theater.
Meanwhile, Gudran interfaces with the international community. The organization brings artists and other foreign visitors to El Max, for hands-on work like restoring homes, as well as conferences on issues like the environment, and the social roles of women and youth.
As El Max feeds off the ebb and flow of the sea, Gudran builds trust with the community through a mutual give-and-take. The staff’s presence is premised on respect for and from local people, delicately cultivated through years of schmoozing with fishermen in coffeehouses, inviting children to splatter themselves with paint in art workshops, and drawing mothers and daughters out of their homes to turn their embroidery into an enterprise.
Developing El Max is at once a personal endeavor and a social movement. “Development is to be able to change your life, to reach a better future,” in Daif’s view. But in Egypt, under the weight of social and religious factors, “people are accepting their life as it is. They have no motivation to change, for better or even for worse, because they think, ‘It’s like that.’”“So, here is where the art arrives,” he says. “To improve the imagination space.”
Mahmoud Fathy, a 28-year-old fisherman who serves as a workshop leader and local coordinator for international volunteer projects, says the value of Gudran’s work “is not just art...I feel that the world is open to me.”
He is now working on an initiative to boost El Max’s economic self-sufficiency: a program to train locals in boat maintenance and construction, with the aim of eventually launching a locally run shop for repairing and building new fishing boats.
Aside from the practical benefits, Mahmoud hopes the grassroots approach to development will guide his peers toward a wider understanding of the world beyond work and religion.
“I hope to change ideas that people hold as beliefs,” he explains. “This idea of not accepting each other and not feeling comfortable with each other." With opportunities to interact with other cultures and artistic media, he says people in the community "begin to take the opportunity to think in another way about life and really begin their initiative to also change the society.”
Wafaa Aly’s measured gaze shines from under a patterned headscarf as she recalls how Gudran helped her locate the doors within El Max’s walls.
After leaving school a few years ago, the 22 year-old idled at home, bored with the social and economic prospects in her relatively isolated community. She sought out Gudran’s workshops, and over time, worked her way up to the head of the women’s sewing program.
In challenging herself through the collective work, she says, “it was a big change in my life, to realize that I can improve myself through this work."
Working with Gudran has broadened her perspective on her role in her community. She wants to help the workshop grow into a factory run by local women.
Yet the work is also a lens for exploring what lies beyond El Max’s horizon. She hopes one day to go abroad and taste life outside the village, or in her words, “fly.”
Since becoming involved in the workshop, she says, “I’ve started to see that there is something called a future that I should work for...And maybe this can be a step in my future. Not just this; I feel that there is more.”
Gudran generally avoids confrontation with authorities – Egypt’s current political climate tends to chill full-fledged activism. But the group has found a way to promote self-determination through art.
The village’s proximity to industrial developments, along with its reputation as a hub for illegal emigration, have made the people vulnerable to displacement, Daif says. Art has emerged as a form of cultural resistance. To ward off potential government attempts to relocate El Max households, Gudran set off a wave of public attention with an international gathering of artists at the village in 2004.
A wall painted by conference participants proclaims the people’s presence in English and Arabic: “We are like fish – we cannot live away from the sea.”
Gudran’s organizational structure works within, while helping to transcend differences in class, language and culture. Striving to involve community members as stakeholders, its structure entails equal participation by the organization’s leaders, the staff and the community members when making decisions on how the programs are carried out.
Yet in each project and in its broader vision, Gudran defines itself as a work in progress.
When it comes to putting ideas to work, Daif explains, “we are not talking about the artistic piece itself. I am not giving my artistic opinion on what volunteers are doing in El Max.” Instead, “I respect the process: you are going and working together with people. Let them express themselves and improve themselves."
The ongoing challenge in Gudran’s work is sustainability. The organization acknowledges that a looming question is how to invest resources locally while promoting the long-term autonomy of the community – so that the knowledge and innovations imparted outlast any project or staffer, and even Gudran itself.
A sculpture at the center of a road illustrates the evolving symbiosis between the organization and the village. It began as an abstract installation depicting a boat with a tree, created by an international team of artists. Inspired by their bond with the community, the creators left the work incomplete, so that local people could finish it on their own.
It’s a kind of connection that colors everyday life in El Max. When people work together to recreate a home, Daif says, “you’re not discussing political stuff, or religious or cultural differences. You just get together and begin to paint. So, art here is really the neutral space, the neutral area for dialogue.”
About the Author
Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication,The NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain.