Egypt’s arts and arts education system is in crisis. The divides between students, their teachers and the various activities of the professional art world seem deeper than ever. Students rarely attend arts events or engage with the professional artworld, teachers deplore the quality of their students and for a nation of over 77 million people, there are very few practicing artists. From the outside, the situation appears opaque and bleak. A view from inside reveals a slightly more nuanced system as well as a perspective on certain cracks and interstices that may offer some promise for change. The following notes on the state of contemporary arts education in Egypt are drawn from a conversation with Cairo-based arts educator and artist Shady El Noshokaty.
A brief history of the systematization of arts education in Egypt would begin before the Nasserist revolution and trace the subsequent evolution of a wide-reaching and exclusively state-run system. The College of Fine Arts was originally established for expatriates in the first decade of the twentieth century; the Applied Arts College was developed in the 1930s to train creative professionals outside of the fine arts such as graphic designers and architects; the Faculty of Arts Education, founded in the early 1950s, began with a yearlong degree program for students from the other two arts colleges. All three institutions, located in Cairo and operating under the umbrella of Helwan University in Cairo, currently hold a central position in the country’s advanced arts studies system. In addition, Alexandria University opened an arts faculty in the 1960s and the universities of Minya and Luxor launched their own programs in the 1980s. The American University in Cairo offers one of the only private fine arts programs in Egypt. Smaller arts colleges are common in midsize towns throughout the country. Most primary and secondary schools run arts programs.
An intensive exam taken during the last two years of high school determines the program and field of study for which students may qualify. The arts component of the exam allows students to choose from two tasks. The tasks usually involve painting an image in reaction to a theme, such as “the quiet serenity of the ocean,” and drawing a perspective study. The arts track is assigned to relatively noncompetitive students, although each educational institution within the arts system differs in terms of academic prerequisites. Art school graduates go on to work in a variety of fields, including graphic design, primary and secondary arts education, and skilled crafts; their education seems to provide an adequate preparation for work in local markets. Other graduates become professional artists. Yet arts institutions often fail to offer students the opportunity to develop the independent thinking, critical resources, and creative skills necessary for an artistic practice capable of engaging audiences outside of the narrow bounds of Egypt’s state-run arts system.
El Noshokaty refuses to place the blame on arts educators, who face daunting working conditions. The starting salary for an art teacher in a primary or secondary school is generally a 100 to 150 Egyptian pounds (approximately $17-26 US) per month, forcing many to take a second job just to cover basic expenses. Grade school administrators for whom arts education is a low priority are often happy to cancel art classes to allow students additional time to prepare for a math or science exam. Teachers receive very limited art materials; even when rare resources do exist such as at the university-level, students are often denied access to them. Only in the past two years have students at the Faculty of Arts Education received training in arts management, although many graduates accept management positions in small arts colleges or become arts managers in museums and government exhibition halls.
Rather, the general crisis in arts education stems from a widescale stagnation of creativity within state institutional systems and a co-option of “artistic authority” by an aging generation of arts professionals. The unwieldy size of Egypt’s civil service sector contributes to an enormous and often inefficient government bureaucracy organized to support job creation and stability rather than flexible and dynamic civil institutions. Weak and overstaffed government systems have bred widespread cronyism and the lack of a strong independent sector in the past meant that state-run arts institutions dominated the terms of artistic production and reception. Teaching positions at important arts colleges and faculties are staffed by artists whose work doesn’t offend official sensibilities and is accessible to older generations of professors. In the 1960s, the new Alexandria University absorbed a number of artist/ teachers who had traveled to the US and returned to find that their ideas, aesthetics and lack of connections barred them from joining the faculty at more well-established schools. Alexandria’s program flourished and was attended by a number of today’s strongest contemporary artists. However, in most cases, artists already outside the state system lack access to supportive institutions or networks.
Noshokaty also places no blame on the students attempting to navigate the system. Creative despondence is produced when students are faced with rigid curricula inherited from the 1950s, restricted materials and facilities, and limited creative freedom. Early on in their studies, students are assigned to a professor under whom they study for the duration of the program. Often, students are expected to emulate their professor’s artistic aesthetic and are given no exposure to a diversity of practices and traditions. These students are working as artists within a framework that champions uncritical reproduction.
Students who take their artistic ambitions seriously must go to great lengths to explore opportunities outside of school for developing skills, obtaining resources, and pursuing an independent practice. El Noshokaty recounts stories of students going to the traditional potters’ quarter of Fustat to avoid bans on student-use of kilns and teachers’ refusal to give lessons in throwing and glazing. Another story involves students organizing figure drawing sessions with models other than those provided in class, who were usually the same models their professors had drawn from in the seventies, now considerably older and sometimes covered from head to toe.
Some alternatives do exist. Noshokaty points to the private secondary schools popping up around Egypt’s urban centers; they provide an alternative to the state-run approach to arts education. These institutions follow less-centralized model than government schools and offer strong electives as part of their programs.
Noshokaty’s ongoing Experimental Workshops for Contemporary Art at the Faculty of Arts Education is an example of a forward-looking initiative launched “within” the established system. The series offers talented students support to explore their own approaches outside traditional classroom conventions, as well as access to and training in new media. The most recent workshop focused on video art. A screening of the students’ work was held at the newly established Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), an artist-run forum dedicated to images. The event was packed, and students stayed on afterward to discuss their work with established artists and one other.
The development of an arts education field committed to critical awareness and independent thought can only occur with the support of teachers, students, artists and arts managers. This, in turn, depends on promoting mutuality in place of relationships too often defined by mutual exclusivity. In the end, strengthening ties between these groups beyond the sphere of state-sponsored activity is Egypt’s hope for a truly sustainable independent arts sector.