Two 7-year-old girls enter the Artellewa Art Space and sit down on wooden chairs, telling the attendant they would like to read Mickey Mouse magazines. The attendant finds the magazines among dozens of books placed orderly on the shelves and gives them to the girls who start reading with a smile.
The cultural center is located in the densely populated and poor district of Ard el-Lewa in northwestern Giza province. The district is located in between the rundown areas of Boulak el-Dakrour and Imbaba. Ard el-Lewa is a maze of crowded, narrow streets full of tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized vehicles), donkey carts and street vendors who make it difficult for private cars and pedestrians to navigate the streets.
Egyptian visual artist and curator Hamdy Reda founded the Artellewa Art Space; the center occupies the ground floor and two floors of his five-story house.
"With this space I have created a bridge between the inhabitants of the area and culture and art," Reda, 45, told Al-Monitor. "The middle- and low-class residents can enter the world of art and interact with it for free."
Reda graduated from the Department of Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Cairo’s Helwan University, and his own work was exhibited at several solo and group exhibitions in Egypt and also abroad, including in Germany, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Algeria, Sweden, Italy, Finland and Denmark.
In 2007, he established Artellewa, deriving its name from the populated area. Since its founding, the cultural venue has been offering all types of art. The ground floor that opens up onto the street hosts over 100 oil paintings and photographs of local and international artists.
Reda said that Ard el-Lewa residents were astonished initially. “They were curious to find out about our activities and what we were doing. They entered the gallery and watched the colorful paintings on the walls while raising their eyebrows.”
As a local to the area, Reda has a good relationship with most of the residents in the neighborhood, which facilitates the center's mission. “They regularly visit the place and ask about new activities to attend," Reda, who is also a freelance photographer, said.
In addition to the exhibitions, Artellewa hosts film screenings, free workshops by local and international artists in fields such as acting, video making, creative thinking, puppetry and theater performance. The center's library houses dozens of books and novels for children and art lovers.
Artellewa also provides an artist residence program that hosts local and foreign artists. The aim of the program is to give artists a chance to interact with the community of Ard el-Lewa, produce artworks at the center and also build networks with the Cairo arts community.
Claudia Egholm Castrone is a Danish illustrator and designer who is an inhouse artist for a month. She is working on her project that is titled "I am twenty-nine," a series of portraits of women around the world who are 29 years old.
She heard about Artellewa from Residency Unlimited, which supports the creation, presentation and dissemination of contemporary art through a residency program and year-round public programs. During her one-month residency, she will interview and portray a host of 29-year-old Egyptian women to study the expectations and tension that come with this age, and challenge the idea of normality.
To find 29-year-old women in Cairo, she posted a message on the Artellewa Facebook page about her project.
"I like this neighborhood. I think it is more interesting to be in a neighborhood that is different from what I'm used to,” Castrone told Al-Monitor. “I have the feeling that Ard el-Lewa is a community where everyone knows each other and that makes me feel safe here," she said.
Amr Abdel-Aziz is a mime artist who lives in Imbaba. He told Al-Monitor that the idea of visiting an art center in a poor area is something he dreamed of when he was a child. He said, "I heard about the center on social media. I have been coming to the center and attending its events for three years now."
Abdel-Aziz has become a member of Artellewa's team and now works part-time as a social media manager at the cultural center. “I hold a storytelling workshop for children aged between 8 and 12 once a week. I narrate folktales and modern-day novels to the children," he said.
He noted that most cultural venues in Egypt are located in the wealthy districts and are frequented by famous people and the well-to-do only. He said, “Artellewa succeeded in providing a space among residents of poor areas to interact with all types of art and meet local and international artists as well. I hope the idea of an art space like this will spread to every poor neighborhood in Egypt."