A poor Nile Delta village has been converted into an open-air gallery by artists who transformed the fronts of small homes with enthralling paintings.
Borg al-Burullus, 300km north of Cairo, has been deprived of essential services such as sewage, clean water and paved roads, for decades. Art, however, is trying to alleviate the suffering of the area’s more than 60,000 residents, most of whom are poor fishermen and their families.
“The artists who painted the fronts of our homes have turned art into something with a message and a real effect on the lives of the people here,” said Abdel Hamid Attia, a resident in his early 60s. “The walls of these homes are witnesses to everything in the lives of their dwellers. The artists have turned them into real-life scenes that speak and send colour and smell.”
The idea of painting the façades of the homes was driven by the artists’ desire to change the deep-rooted approach of confining art to the limits of frames. By turning buildings into artworks, the artists positively influenced the behaviour of residents.
Borg al-Burullus has suffered from decades of neglect but the beautification initiative inspired Attia and other residents to be keener on cleaning streets and alleyways and maintaining the painted walls.
“This is how art can turn from an elitist thing into something that changes the lives of the poor,” said Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen, the leading artist on the project. “The paintings on the fronts of the buildings are creating a new spirit and new realities.”
Abdel Mohsen and fellow artists said they selected Borg al-Burullus for reasons beyond it needing sprucing up, including its location overlooking Lake Burullus, one of several major fishing lakes in Egypt, and the increasing number of foreign artists visiting the country.
Thanks to the generosity of the villagers and the enthusiasm of their children, who were keen to be part of the painting experience, the artists produced real-life scenes. Some paintings capture the Nile, others depict farmlands on the outskirts of the village or scenes of the people’s daily life.
Some of the artists took their contribution further and painted fishing boats.
The beautification, however, cannot veil the area’s problems: Sewage is bad, electricity intermittent and unemployment rampant.
“Many of the village’s youth have to travel — some outside Egypt — to find work,” Attia said. “Nonetheless, the contribution of these artists has given us hope that change can happen.”
The villagers are appreciative of how art can affect their lives. The alleyways and streets had been littered with refuse. Some young residents have taken the initiative of painting the interiors of their homes.
“This proves that art is not made for joy and visual beauty only,” said Abdullah Mahmud, one of the artists participating in the project. “It can be a tool for change and development.”
Now, Abdel Mohsen said he has a dream: Turning Borg al-Burullus into a model for the development of the rest of Egypt, especially the thousands of deprived towns and villages.
He even has a bigger dream: Putting the area on Egypt’s tourist map by having an annual painting festival, one that can become an occasion for international artists to gather in the village and put their talent into practice by painting the walls of its homes.
“I just want to prove that development can become very possible with art,” Abdel Mohsen said. “Art is not costly and it can make a lot of change. It can change people’s behaviour and the way they see life and give them hope.”
Mohamed Abu Shanab is an Egyptian reporter based in Aswan.