Over the past week, a rift has grown between cultural activists and El Sawy Culture Wheel, a cultural center founded in 2003 on the Zamalek island, after the latter stopped a performance entitled “Autobus” by the Walsa theater troupe on Friday night. The performance, which was part of the 7th Monodrama Festival, was interrupted on the grounds of “insulting religion.”
The festival’s jury interrupted performer Mina Ezzat three minutes into the show after he used an expression that translates literally into “I’ll ruin the religion of this show,” but is commonly used as an expletive to express frustration rather than make any reference to religion.
“Autobus” is an improvisational performance, and its theme was to express artists’ frustration with conditions of performance, and the limited impact art has on society, according to the statement issued by Walsa director John Milad.
Milad added that although the theater troupe managed to convince the jurors of their point of view, the Culture Wheel’s administration insisted on cancelling the show completely. This has been denied by the administration of El Sawy Culture Wheel in a statement issued on Wednesday. Several cultural groups have, however, shown solidarity with Walsa, and see the institution’s decision as an act of censorship.
On Wednesday, the Egyptian Creativity Front, a recently formed coalition of artists that works on promoting freedom of expression in the arts, issued a statement condemning the decision of the administrators at El Sawy. The front criticized the decision, especially as it comes from an institution run by MP Mohamed al-Sawy, who also heads the Culture, Tourism and Media Committee in Parliament that is expected to strongly influence the drafting of articles related to freedom of expression in Egypt’s new constitution, according to the statement.
The front added that it is standard practice in the most conservative of countries to avoid censorship in the context of artistic festivals. “Whereas institutions reserve the right to accept or refuse a work that it will produce or show, and enforce censorship on artists who accept conforming to their ideologies… accepting to show a work in the context of an artistic festival has its standard protocols that respect creative works. Institutions must either abide by them or not bother holding such festivals in the first place.”
This is not the first time that El Sawy Culture Wheel has engaged in censorship. Over the past few years, some short films — a category that the Culture Ministry’s Censorship Authority does not monitor — like Mohamed Hammad’s "Central," were banned from screening at El Sawy. And in March 2011, when Mohamed al-Sawy briefly held the position of Culture Minister before protests pressured him to resign, he told Egypt Independent that he believes in censorship to protect morals and values.
The theater administration at El Sawy Culture Wheel, however, denies its involvement in the incident. In a statement issued on Wednesday in response to the ones made by director Milad and the Creativity Front, the Culture Wheel said that it was the jurors who stopped the performance, and when the Walsa troupe submitted the proposal to the administration it was not mentioned that it included improvisation, or that there would be changes to the submitted script. The original script submitted to the committee did not include the introductory act which included a “clear insult to religion,” adding that El Sawy is strongly committed to the values of freedom of expression.
A documentation of the “Autobus” performance at El Sawy Culture Wheel can be seen here.