CAIRO: In observance of International Human Rights Day, the US Embassy organized a discussion on Monday between Egyptian artists and US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchange Maura Pally regarding the role visual arts may play in promoting human rights.
The artists, most of whom are alumni of US government exchange programs, presented various works that address human rights.
Pally opened the discussion by saying that both US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believe in arts’ importance.
“The arts really [provide us with] a unique way to communicate with each other … that transcends language, religion and politics,” Pally stated.
Pally also said that the US administration feels strongly that artists play a unique role as ambassadors and community leaders who can make a strong impact on human rights issues.
“Arts have an important role in addressing issues in a way that is very productive [and that is] sometimes more productive than [in] a formal session,” Pally added.
Mohamed Syam, a filmmaker, said that human rights are a component of any artistic project.
He stated that artists shouldn’t consciously address particular human rights issues, but that they should instead express the thoughts that are most important to them. As a result of doing so, according to Syam, human rights issues will inevitably be conveyed in their work.
Syam recently worked on a documentary entitled “City of the Dead” that follows the lifestyles of Egyptians who live in tombs, and he is currently preparing a documentary about Sudan.
Art curator Ilham Khattab stated that — after working in the arts — she discovered that artists have a responsibility that is larger than merely making and selling their work; the artists must also ensure their works will have a positive impact on society as a whole.
Khattab started a project entitled “Color Egypt” that consists of organizing a day of entertainment for underprivileged children that increases their knowledge through artistic activities, while also providing the most talented kids with art supplies.
Ahmed Hayman, a professional photographer, stated that his photo gallery about Gaza helped portray a different perspective of Palestinians’ daily lives to the public.
Hayman said that people only typically know about the war and destruction in Gaza, but that his photographs helped show that there are various other aspects of life there.
Hayman also started a project with two other partners called “Colorful Picture.” The project consisted of taking pictures of people for LE 20, using the money collected to install water pipes in impoverished areas. The project succeeded, and led to the installation of running water in seven homes, in addition to the rebuilding of an entire house.
Hayman also demonstrated the power of a photograph in motivating people to assist the needy. He posted two photographs that showed the suffering of a family living without water in the Ayat area on his Facebook page. Within four days he was able to collect LE 6,000 for them.
Nagy Ismail, a documentary filmmaker, stated that utilizing the arts to discuss human rights issues — especially those that would otherwise be considered overly complicated or generally unappealing — can make those issues more accessible for ordinary citizens.
Ismail has collaborated with a Pakistani partner to make a documentary about peace, and is also preparing another documentary about Egypt’s presidential elections.
Ismail added that 2011 will be a particularly important year for Egyptian artists to produce projects that address human rights.
Ezz El Bendary, an owner of an advertising agency, screened a short public service announcement that he made about drug addiction after his neighbor, a drug addict, committed suicide.
El Bendary said that, after posting the short announcement on YouTube, various drug addicts contacted him to tell him that his announcement affected them.
Filmmaker Mona Shaheen made a documentary about women who support their families, as well as another documentary film addressing child labor.
“I wanted to give a message to employers to stop employing kids,” said Shaheen.
Shaheen is currently editing a documentary about Muslims in Germany that aims to promote the rights of immigrants in freely practicing their religions. She stated that one of the messages she wanted to portray through her documentary is the idea that the isolation and discrimination of immigrants that practice different religions is one of the potential causes of terrorism.
“In my experience, people act only when they are [directly] affected by the issue,” said Shaheen. “So I tried to convey [through the documentary] that [the public must] support immigrants because, otherwise, [the public] will be [directly] affected by the consequences.”
US Embassy in Cairo Alumni Coordinator Haytham Atef congratulated the artists for their impressive work and their contributions to human rights issues. He concluded the meeting by encouraging the artists to collaborate with one another, and to seek the US Embassy’s support in producing further projects in the future.