Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A woman for our times

The Cultural Development Fund’s optimistic new director Neveen El-Kilany tells Nevine El-Aref about her plans

A woman  for our times
A woman for our times
Al-Ahram Weekly


lthough the appointment of Neveen El-Kilany as the new head of the Cultural Development Fund (CDF) has prompted disagreement in Ministry of Culture circles, no one is arguing about her integrity or passion for the arts. A ballerina in spirit and an established academic by profession, Neveen El-Kilany has also had 15 years of experience in and around the CDF.  

On her graduation in 1989, she assisted former CDF head Salah Shaquir in supervising the gala opening of the Cairo Opera House. In addition to her academic career, she worked in the public relations department of the Cairo Opera House and its Talent Development Centre. Six years later, she received her PhD and was appointed a professor of art criticism at the Arts Academy, becoming dean of the Higher Institute of Art Criticism in 2014. In 2001, El-Kilany joined the CDF when she was appointed General Coordinator of the Al-Manasterly Palace International Music Centre. From 2012 until two months ago, she directed the CDF’s Technical Office. Other achievements include helping to establish the Modern Dance School and being a member of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Consultants Committee for six years.

With classical music playing in the background, El-Kilani’s warm and spacious office in the CDF’s two-storey building on the Cairo Opera House grounds is decorated with her favourite views – a felucca crossing the Nile in Aswan, Al-Muizz Street, the Giza Plateau – as well paintings from the Luxor International Painting Symposium. 

There El-Kilani welcomes me with a winning smile, proving an admirably modest character, remarkably friendly. Ironically it is her character that opponents of her appointment to the post have taken issue with: they feel that a woman who is moreover humble and kind will not be able to direct one of the ministry’s most important arms, funding most of its cultural activities all across Egypt. Her supporters, on the other hand, cite her excellent track record, which makes her familiar with the ins and outs of the CDF and its many hidden doors.

However suited to the job, El-Kilany is faced with a very difficult task. The CDF’s budget, for one thing, has suffered since the 2011 revolution, when the Ministry of Antiquities – itself in debt to the Ministry of Finance due to the decline in tourism – stopped paying the Ministry of Culture ten percent of its earnings. But, as El-Kilany sees it, is being the first woman ever to head the CDF a curse or a blessing?

“Although I’ve worked in the CDF for 15 years now,” she says, “when I was appointed to the post I felt I was facing a huge responsibility I had to live up to. I was in charge of the CDF’s activities but now I have to deal with all the CDF’s different files: 12 creative centres; committees, projects, symposiums; cooperations with other cultural institutes. I also have to provide the budget needed for all these activities. 

“The first three weeks in my tenure was devoted to organising and reviewing all these files, and now all is on course. Being a woman is neither a curse nor a blessing,” she finally says. “I just have to work hard to maintain the CDF’s role in supporting all kinds of arts and creativity as well as providing free cultural services to Egyptians in an attempt to raise their cultural awareness.”

Asked about the issues that Minister of Culture Helmy Al-Namnam brought up with her when he summoned her to offer her the post, El-Kilany says she had known Al-Namnam for many years, long before he took on Egypt’s culture portfolio: “We were fellow members of Bibliotheca Alexandrina Supreme Council of Culture committees. 

“I used to ask his opinion and advice on various professional problems. His work as a journalist made him think outside the box and he always has an invaluable opinion that added something. When we met after I was appointed to the post, he told me I had the full authority to lead the CDF as I saw fit. I’ve worked under several figures but Al-Namnam’s method of administration enables his employees to take courageous decisions and work hard to prove they can live up to the responsibility.”

Her dream, she says, is a new, integrated arts policy: “To create new arts projects that groups all kinds of art under one vision. One example of this is the project submitted by engineer Hamdi Al-Sotouhi, the head of the Abu Simbel Temples 50 Campaign, which aims at creating a museum documenting the relocation of the temple onto an artificial in the 1960s to prevent its being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser after the building of the Aswan High Dam. 

“It recalls the vision of the then minister of culture, the late Tharwat Okasha, who not only led the relocation process but also had it documented through art, assigning assigned the late, renowned Hussein Bikar along with a team of artists to make drawings from 1963 to 1966, capturing every inch of the structure, including decorative elements and hieroglyphic texts. They also drew the different phases of the relocation process. Musician Aziz Al-Shawan also wrote a piece on the occasion.

“Now after 50 years we could accomplish what Okasha started through the creation of the museum which will put on display the pictures drawn by Bikar and his team as well as the new ones drawn by other artist during the celebration of the salvage operation’s golden jubilee together with photos, documents and tools used in the relocation process. 

“When the museum is established we can organise an annual symposium in Abu Simbel where Egyptian and foreign artists gather to produce impressions of the temple and it relocation as well as the scenery of Lake Nasser and the sedate town of Abu Simbel itself. If I manage to make this dream to come true it will serve tourism as well as culture. Egypt has very distinguished locations and I hope to promote and revive through festivals...”

El-Kilany feels the most important means to cultural development are the CDF creative centres: “The establishment of these centres started in 2001 when the renowned pianist Ramzi Yassa suggested creating an international music centre at Al-Manesterly palace on Al-Roda Island to perform concerts similar to those performed in the palaces of Europe. Regretfully the centre’s activities were stopped for a time as the palace was under restoration but now all the activities can be resumed. 

“The success of the Manesterly experiment led to the establishment of other centres at various archaeological house restored by the Ministry of Antiquities in Historic Cairo. These centres have helped a lot in developing culture among the residents of these areas. In the upcoming period, I will review the activities off all these centres and find a way to extend the to reach other places including remote villages in Upper Egypt and Delta. I don’t want to limit my efforts to Cairo and Alexandria, I want to extend our to every inch of Egypt, especially the border cities.

“It can be done with ease through activating the different bilateral protocols signed a year ago, during Gaber Asfour’s tenure, between the Ministry of Culture and other ministries, such as the ministries of education and higher education. Instead of holding plays and concerts at the creative centres and waiting for people to show up, for example, we could go to people at schools and universities and perform there,” she says, adding that Ramzi Yassa is “more than welcome” to resume his role at the Al-Manesterly Palace – if he has time for it and can be in Egypt often enough.

Likewise the handicrafts industry: “This is a very important file. The CDF is planning to develop the free four-month workshops created in the Al-Fustat Centre for traditional handicrafts to facilitate mastering the required skills and so preserve them for future generations. These workshops could be held at cultural centres in Upper and Lower Egypt to preserve the local traditions as well as providing job opportunities and raising living standard. I want to establish a textiles centre in Sohag for the Al-Talli weaving tradition, which is all but extinct. The second centre would be in the oases which have their own kinds of handicrafts in line with the ecological environment. The handicrafts produced at these workshops will be put on display and sold at exhibitions in Egypt and abroad in collaboration with other concerned ministries. 

“Now a newly organised committee is in full swing specifying a selling price for every product in order to put them on display at an exhibition in China within the framework of the Egypt-China cultural year. The exhibition will facilitate cultural exchange for six months, covering every facet of art and literature and supplemented by lectures, workshops and seminars on marketing as well as production. The marketing policy is being drawn in order to provide more opportunities for Egypt to participate in similar exhibitions abroad. The lack of pricing and marketing policies has long prevented the country from participating in such international exhibitions.”

El-Kilany says the products will also be available at hotels and resorts. “These are our ancestors’ legacy and we have to look at them differently and not be content to display them in antique showcases.” But does the CDF have what it would take to produce quite so much? El-Kilany says anything is possible so long as a project is successful: “If the experiment works, we can find the venues and the skill laboured to replicate it.”

As to the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, another major CDF achievement – founded and directed by sculptor Adam Henein, who is now retiring – El-Kilany is not enthusiastic about calls for restructuring the event. She says the concept of the symposium is Henein’s intellectual property, and given that “renovation is found in the process of the symposium itself, since every year it hosts different artists with new experiences and cultures,” its vision should remain intact. The same goes for the Luxor International Painting Symposium and the Cartoon and Arabic Calligraphy Symposiums:

“The Aswan Symposium has maintained its success over its 20-year history,” El-Kilany says. “Until now 226 art pieces have been produced there, 191 of which are on display at the Open-air Museum in Aswan, the rest in various public squares in Al-Mansoura, Sharm El-Sheikh, Alexandria, Cairo, Aswan, Al-Sheikh Zayed... On the Press Syndicate’s request, the CDF is to offer one of those sculptures to decorate the foyer of the syndicate building.” 

But will there be a Mosaic Symposium as well? “The CDF is not an organisation that creates or invents creative ideas,” El-Kilany says. “It is a cultural association that supports creative ideas, providing funding and facilities to make it possible to carry them out.” 

The CDF’s plan to establish public libraries across the country has stalled, however. “Frankly speaking that plan was drastically affected by the lack of budget since 2011. But we were able to establish four libraries in the Paris Oasis in the New Valley, in Assyout and in the basement of the house of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s father in Alexandria.” Financial resources are being sought by generating profit from the ministry’s own  cultural activities, raising the CDF’s share of ticket prices at paid events, for example. But since most CDF activities are free of charge, this will only go so far.

Still, in the new financial year the second phase of the Al-Fustat Centre is to begin. “There will be artists’ ateliers,” El-Kilany says, beaming, “exhibition halls, galleries, an open-air theatre and a cafeteria.”

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