Shelter: How a former Egyptian bunker has become a creative haven for artists

The multidisciplinary art space in Alexandria hopes to revive interest in the city's downtown

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Turn off Fouad Street, one of Alexandria's most historic, and you will find a grey-and-blue-tiled staircase leading to Shelter Art Space, the newest addition to the city's cultural scene.It's serene, shiny and beautifully lit.

Almost a century ago, you wouldn't have been able to access this space from street level because Shelter was originally a bunker: a refuge for residents who lived through months of combat as Egypt fought alongside its Allies during the Second World War. In the years that followed, the basement turned from hiding spot to messy storage space, before being overrun by nests of mice, recalls ­Mamoon Azmy, Shelter's ­artistic director.

The building, a tall, 1928 Belle Epoque structure built by Greek architect Peter Gripari, was eventually acquired by real estate management company Sigma Properties. With the help of a small team, it was ­repurposed into a multidisciplinary art space and opened to the public last year. But the site's history is still seen in the bare, beige stone walls and exposed ceiling.

Currently, Shelter is showing Magic Window, exhibition featuring works by celebrated painter Evelyn Ashamallah and her two sons: visual artist and filmmaker Bassem Yousri and multidisciplinary artist Salam Yousri.

After the opening of the show, Shelter's fourth since June, I sat with two of the creative minds behind the project, executive director Chaymaa Ramzy and Azmy, who is also a filmmaker and the former film curator at art space Wekalet Behna.

Ramzy and Azmy both say that part of the aim of Shelter is to reintegrate Alexandria's centre into the rest of the city's urban fabric, and revive young people's interest in spending time in the "old downtown". 

In addition, the interest of the team lies in fostering an "interactive relationship between artists and audiences, where dialogue is born," explains Azmy. This will be achieved through holding workshops and talks that run parallel to exhibitions, as is the case with the current show, with Salam organising an interactive workshop titled: Help me finish my film, ­centred on one of his long-term projects.

When Shelter approached Ashmallah and her sons, they were not set on a curatorial direction. "I knew I wanted to show Ashmallah's work and I had attended a show for Bassem in Cairo, but I had no idea that Salam was Bassem's brother, for example," ­explains Ramzy.

Magic Window Exhibition 3 
XYZ by Evelyn Ashamallah
Magic Window is currently exhibiting at Shelter. Courtesy Shelter Art Space

After some thinking, the trio decided that Magic Window would peek into ­Ashmallah's work from the 1980s and 1990s, around the time her sons witnessed her working at home and were presumably most affected by her practice. In fact, much of Salam's work on display in Magic Window shows a lot of influence from his mother, particularly in his fluid depiction of human interaction, which often blurs the line between man and woman, and human and animal. "They [Bassem and Salam] used to have a say in her choice of colours, something we didn't know of before … It was not a one-way relationship," Azmy tells us of the family. 

Meanwhile, Bassem assumes the role of "guide" in the exhibition, with his figures that feature speech bubbles with witty commentary. These also offer biting criticism of an arts scene that he considers unwelcoming of anything out-of-the-ordinary, and of an audience that is ostensibly impatient. According to Azmy, some of these interventions, if you will, were only conceived after all the pieces were up.

"We want to showcase Alexandrian artists who do not have a space to show their work," Azmy tells us of the ethos of the space. "The visual arts market is based in Cairo at the moment, ­unfortunately," he continues, adding that even collectors from Alexandria have long found refuge in Egypt's capital. "This requires time [in order] to change."

Magic Window Exhibition
XYZ by Salam Yousry
Salam Yousri acts as a guide through the exhibition, speaking to the viewer through illustrated speech bubbles. Courtesy Shelter Art Space

Ramzy ­explains that there is an audience for an art scene in Alexandria: you have the collectors, who are necessary for it to be sustained; young people, who are lured in through an art school that the gallery ­established; as well as mid-­career professionals, mostly seeking free or low-cost events.

In the coming year, Shelter will partner up with ­Photopia, a photography hub from Cairo. For its second phase, and to generate money, the venue will open a cafeteria and library on the building's ground floor, in addition to a store that sells merchandise and home-grown designs. These products, like the building they are in, will reflect both Alexandria's past and present.

Magic Window is at Shelter Art Space until Saturday,
with a special screening of Bassem Yousri’s film, The Wardrobe Man, scheduled for the closing day