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by Eleonora Vio

[dropcap color=”#000000″ type=””]T[/dropcap]he sixth season of the biennial Spring Festival, an initiative launched for the first time by the Culture Resource in 2004 and initially limited to Egyptian stages, kicks off in Cairo and Beirut on 24th April with a focus on the African region.

“Last year, Basma (el-Hosseiny), our director, travelled to Malawi as a consultant on cultural policy and came across so many talented artists – she couldn’t help but be charmed by them,” says Debbie Smith, Program Manager at the Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy).

“As we were brainstorming on the direction we wanted this year’s event to take, we thought that giving visibility to the countries that, together with Egypt, compose this huge and partly unknown continent was the right thing to do, and that’s why we selected some of its most talented artists,” says Smith.

Still, Smith stresses how the presence of a specific theme is an exception to the Spring Festival’s general concept.  The festival’s main objective is to bring international artists to Egypt and Lebanon, opening new horizons for cooperation among them and familiarizing the public with diverse creative experiences.

The second important aspect is the attempt to include a wide range of arts instead of just a single practice, and to alternate non-stop musical, literary, theatrical, arts and dance performances in the different venues.

The Spring Festival is one of the several cultural projects that the Culture Resource has been organizing for the past ten years.  According to Smith, “It was the festival itself, with its international outlook, that helped us, the staff of Culture Resource, to find supporters from all over.”  And although the Culture Resource organizes the Spring Festival, the Culture Resource partially owes its growth, success and visibility to the Spring Festival.

This year’s opening night includes a performance by South African musician and vocalist Lira, whose eclectic fusion of soul, funk and African music has gained her international recognition.  Lira was the acclaimed winner of the 2009 South African Music Award, and was the only African singer to attend American president Barak Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2013.

“Artists were chosen for their talent, but also because they stand outside the mainstream commercial realm,” Smith explains.  “Most of them have never performed in Egypt and we wanted to invite people that Egyptians are not familiar with to stimulate their curiosity and make them think outside of the box.”

Besides Lira, the festival includes performances by singer and multi-instrumentalist Nawal from the Comoros Island, “A country very few people know to be part of the African continent,” Smith says jokingly; South African choreographer and dancer, Mamela Nyamza, who will be involved in the workshop organized by modern Egyptian dancer, Karima Mansour; and contemporary dance troupe Afrikanaam from Senegal.

But the events do not stop there; in its attempt to establish solid cultural bridges, the Spring Festival will host artists from 17 countries.  Culture Resource will host “a festival within the festival” called Red Zone, launched for the first time in Oslo in March 2013 by Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV) from Norway.  Dedicated to freedom of expression in the arts, Red Zone will take place between Cairo and Beirut from the 1st to the 15th of May, with the aim of giving artists access to a broader audience.

Among the several shortlisted candidates, spoken word artists from Malawi, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia will present an evening of new original poems, sounds and visuals developed together for the festival.

The line-up includes Egyptian rapper Aly Talibab, who is known for his harsh criticism of society’s structures and taboos; Tunisian VJ and multi-media artist Ghazi Frini, who manipulates and reformats videos, sounds and images on the spot; Lebanese poet and rapper, Mazen el-Sayed, who switches from classical Arabic to spoken dialect and tackles sensitive issues like revolution and religion; and Palestinian-Jordanian rapper, songwriter, percussionist and spoken word artist, Tarek Abu Kwaik (better known as El Far3i).

The festival will also screen This is not a film by Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb; This is not a film is the winner of the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Experimental Film Award in 2013, and this marks its first screening in Egypt.  The 2012 Iranian documentary is “one of the best examples of how art can overcome borders and restrictions.”  Shot while the director was under house arrest and banned from making films, the film was smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake, only to be presented at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

“Both the Spring Festival and Culture Resource aim to return culture to its central role in Egyptian society,” says Smith.  “Artists around the world struggle due to a shortage of funds and time, but Egyptian artists struggle even more, because besides having less access to places, equipment and tools, they face major obstacles in producing their own work.”

While Egypt’s indie scene witnessed significant growth in the years leading up to the 2011 Revolution, the recent economic situation has had a huge impact on culture production and funding.

“Nowadays culture is seen as a waste of time by the authorities, who’d rather invest in other fields, but culture is still rooted in the Egyptian tradition,” says Smith.  “Luckily, artists and intellectuals represent the progressive side of society and, even in hard times like 2012, they didn’t stop working to get their projects off the ground, and we didn’t stop endorsing them.”

“We of the Spring Festival and Culture Resource, believe that bringing together local and international artists, and appealing to both Egyptian and foreign audiences can have a real and positive impact on Egyptian civil society as a whole,” says Smith.

The Spring Festival will be running from the 24th of April to the 26th of May at several venues: El Geneina Theater in Azhar Park, Al Falaki Theater behind AUC’s old campus, Rawabet Theater and Viennoise Hotel, both in down town Cairo.