In July 2012 I spent two weeks in Cairo, Egypt interviewing young, Egyptian artists about their information needs. It was my first romp into the world of information science research. As a student, I thought I would do more academic library-related research (instruction, assessment) but my limited world travel just kept asking to be a part of my professional research.
Thus, Egypt and guessing my way through the research and publication process as I go. Here’s an brief (and truncated) overview of my research. At ARLIS/NA 2013, I presented a fuller report.
I interviewed eight Egyptian artists living in Cairo – a photographer, a playwright, a fashion makeup stylist turned videographer, a graphic/textile designer, an author, a mixed media artist, and two painters. I talked with 5 men and 3 women; the median age of the artists is 33 years; the oldest is 38 and the youngest, 25.
The eight artists I interviewed had college degrees in: French literature & history (makeup & video artist); psychology (painter); business administration (two artists: author and photographer); management & information systems (mixed media artist); commerce & accounting (playwright); Faculty of Fine Arts (painter); and College of Applied Arts (fashion & graphic designer).
I framed the interview questions from Susie Cobbledick’s 1996 investigation into the information needs of artists:
sources of inspiration and specific elements of work
books (8 artists) – includes fiction, science, history, and Sufism. Fashion, philosophy, plays, and art; read in Arabic and English; prefer print
images (7) – Google Image, visually strong websites/blogs, taking personal photos as sources
personal life experience (5) – The author said, “What I write is inspired by this country, by me living here.” This category includes Arab Spring (5). A painter who splits his time between Cairo and New York City said, “New York used to be very stimulating as opposed to Cairo, but then, for the first time, when I was throwing rocks at the pigs and they were shooting at me and there were explosions…you were actually, literally doing the struggle of art in the streets against what’s holding you back.”
other – film (4), magazines (3), travel (3), television (2), and music (2)
sources of information about materials and technical issues
Finding sources of information to solve technical issues or getting feedback on work in progress varied for each of these artists. Most commonly, the artist speaks with other artists working in a similar media. Usually these conversations happen in person, however these conversations are moving into the digital realm. The graphic designer mentioned using Facebook and Skype to hold conversations with other artists. The photographer uses an online community of photographers where he posts for feedback on his work and to get technical questions answered.
sources of information about exhibition, production and sale
It’s rare to have an open call for visual or performing arts in Egypt. This means that artists must network in order to know curators, publishers, directors, and government-sponsored artists. These connections not only lead to more offers for showing work, but also residency and grant opportunities.
In the words of the makeup artist, “You have to know the right people to know the other right people.”
One outlet for marketing and publicity was dominant: Facebook. Six of the eight artists mentioned Facebook, and in particular Facebook’s Events application, as an important source for promoting their work. Additionally, all of the artists said they do most of their publicity in English. “If I didn’t speak English I would have lost at least three or four chances to work in the last few years,” the playwright told me. The other artists echoed this sentiment.
sources for keeping up with the contemporary, global art community
Facebook and email subscriptions to various art and cultural centers are the preferred choices for finding about new events and opportunities. Two of the artists mentioned a popular website, Cairo 360, for discovering what’s new in the arts. But the main source of information on the global art community is Google. All of the artists use Google in English because of the quality of the websites available in English.
use of libraries
Uh, there isn’t any. In brief:
“The libraries here are not good enough,” said the photographer, “because a lot of the books are outdated.” Every artist I spoke with echoed this comment. The makeup artist said she used to go to the public library for books on fashion but when she couldn’t find any, she stopped going.
Perhaps most telling about why libraries are underused in Egypt comes from understanding the educational and cultural systems. In their study of Middle Eastern information literacy challenges, Fahmy and Rifaat state “students in Arab countries are used to being ‘on the receiving end of information’ and that they are usually told exactly what to read, exactly what to study, and exactly how to do homework.”
One of the painters told me, “We as artists and students, we didn’t really get the chance to study or research the right way. Like when you go to the library and you read, read, read…but we don’t have this here in Egypt. Studying by going to the library, that doesn’t really exist. Which is really bad.”
Of course, I have so much more to share about my research and what I learned. That’s why I’m hoping to find an outlet for publishing this work as an article. As I’m again rushing in blindly and full of enthusiasm, wish me luck!
works cited & other reading
Cobbledick, Susie. (1996). The information-seeking behavior of artists: Exploratory interviews. The Library Quarterly, 66(4): 343-372.
Mendelsohn, Henry. (March 2011). Civil unrest affects libraries in Cairo, Egypt. International Leads, 25(1): 1-4.
Rifaat, Fahmy & Nermine M. Rifaat. (2010). Middle East information literacy awareness and indigenous Arabic content challenges. The International Information & Library Review, 42(2): 111-123.
Steiner, Rochelle. (2006). Nilehilism: Is Egyptian art cutting edge or cut off? Modern Painters, 19(3): 104-5.
Thompson, Seth. (2008). Cairo’s Avant-Garde. Afterimage, 36(2): 2-6.
Winegar, Jessica. (2006). Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press.