While many NGOs spend their time holding capacity-building and training workshops, Minya City’s Oyoon Art Group has decided to practise a different kind of development — through art, self-expression and efforts to identify Al Minya’s cultural identity. The Oyoon Art Group is a company with a mission; its brief, according to their Facebook page, concerns “seeing the world through different eyes”. The company was established in June 2010, though its story began 17 years prior to that date, when members were only eight years old.
“We’re lifelong friends,” Shady Khalil, 25, who works in the development field told Ahram Online. “When we were about eight years old, we started participating in classes in the Jesuit Institute for Drama in Minya,” he explained. In the Institute, the members were exposed to different forms of art, such as theatrical improvisation, filmmaking and contemporary dance, among other artistic forms of expression. Later, when their average age was 12, they were approached by Salama Morsy Organisation that works on educational development and by CARE, an international humanitarian organisation working in poverty-fighting programmes - both aiming to train actors in villages where the Oyoon Art Group held development activities.
“We volunteered, with Salama Moussa, for teaching shadow puppet theatre using paper in village schools all around Minya,” Khalil recalls. “We kept working with Salama Moussa until 2005 — when an exciting opportunity came up,” he added. The Ministry of Education was interested in exploring the use of art as a tool for active learning. They asked this group, who in spite of their young age, had immense experience in the field. Within this project, they worked with teachers, social workers and school administration workers with the group acting as facilitators rather than trainers. “It was a challenge for them to take us seriously,” Khalil said, chuckling: “After a while they came round.”
It was at this point that the group started working with photographic images for a media advocacy campaign with Salama Moussa, developing their practice of filmmaking with the Jesuit Institute, working with animation.
Later in 2007, the group started working with the Naseej Foundation in Jordan, regionally empowering the young to develop their communities. Naseej asked the group to document their concept of art through development using the same tools: animation films and photography. They held an exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Arts in Cairo, along with two other exhibitions in Jordan and Canada. Until 2007, the group had been working independently and organically. When they had to exhibit their work to a general public, however, they were asked what they constituted together. “We were simply friends,” Khalil recalls. “At this point we had to create an organisational identity for ourselves, and that’s when Oyoon Art Group was born.”
They chose the name Oyoon, “eyes” in Arabic, to reflect their aim of giving people the opportunity to “see” themselves and explore their own identity, along with expressing themselves to be “seen” by others. With the money coming in from the project, they bought equipment for Oyoon. During the next phase they continued working with Naseej and Salama Moussa, together with other organisations like UNICEF and CIDA, on several projects relating to citizenship, education in rural area in Minya, as well as working with street children using art as a developmental tool.
“CIDA asked us to create animation films and photo booklets to simplify concepts of citizenship for a toolkit for an NGO they were creating,” Nader Adel, another member of Oyoon, told Ahram Online. In June 2010, Oyoon was officially registered as a company. “We decided to register as a company, not an NGO, since that gave us more freedom in terms of financial independence and self-sustainability,” Khalil explained.
That same year, the group also expanded their activities to Siwa Oasis, where they worked with the local organisation Dayer Ma Yedoor (Round and round), which works with developing local handicrafts and runs an art centre for children. They held a workshop for one week teaching children’s puppet theatre and making animated films.
In January 2011, the Nahdet Mahrousa NGO supported Oyoon with a grant enabling them to carry out their vision. “This was the point where we had to really sit down and make a business plan,” Khalil recalled. “In a retreat we had, where we brainstormed ideas and concepts, we decided that Egypt’s core problem wasn’t poverty or education. The real problem was that people didn’t accept each others’ differences,” Khalil said. “If people can express themselves, and listen to others expressing themselves, then they will start accepting each other.” This is when the three main pillars Oyoon strives to develop were constructed: Promoting freedom of expression, exploring cultural diversity, and conceptualising the identity of people from Minya. This would all be done through creating open, free and safe spaces for self-expression and identity exploration. The group would manage to support these initiatives through offering consultation, training and documentation services for organisations and using the income to their own ends.
Their main activity at the moment is the Minya Open Day. The event takes place on the last Friday of each month, where in a public space, they invite passers by as well as attendees to spray paint, draw and express themselves using the materials provided by Oyoon on the pavements and walls. In the evening they hold an open mic night in partnership with Mashrou’ El Mareekh (The Mars Project), which is a Cairo-based initiative promoting self-expression activities around Egypt. The group has hosted three of these open days so far and plans to continue this endeavour. Through these Open Days, young people in Minya started showing an interest in volunteering with Oyoon. The plan is to “incubate” these young people in an organic way, just as the original group of Oyoon developed, through having orientation sessions and empowering them to start their own projects within the Oyoon framework.
For Oyoon’s future plans, according to Khalil, they hope to continue working on “creating free and safe spaces for expression”. They eventually want to create a real-space in Minya, one that can be described as a cultural centre. “Cultural expression is very much centred in Cairo and Alexandria,” Adel said. “We love our city and we believe people in Minya will have a lot to offer the cultural scene if they are given the tools and the confidence. We want Minya to be Upper-Egypt’s cultural hub.” Minya has distinctive women’s dresses and a unique dialect that dates back generations. “We want to pinpoint this identity through creative productions and brainstorming sessions with the people of Minya.”
Part of promoting Minya’s culture and identity is holding Alternative Tourism activities. “We want tourists to meet the people who live in Minya, who live among these artefacts. We want to tell their story,” Khalil explained. With Oyoon’s long history in artistic development and their passion for the city, Egypt should expect a whole new wave of cultural expression from the “Bride of Upper Egypt” as Minya is known locally.