This contribution has been written by Astrid Thews and Mayada Said. Having lived in Cairo, Egypt, for several years, they co-founded Mahatat for contemporary art at the beginning of 2011. Mahatat for contemporary art is an initiative for art in public space and community art projects. Here on aminachaudri.ch Thews and Said describe events and portray people they have encountered through their work in Egypt. They make no claim to present a complete and representative description in their writing; on the contrary, they aim to contribute to a more differentiated picture of the country. In the present contribution, published in two parts, they tell of the temporary transformations of two squares in Cairo – transformations achieved through very different artistic interventions.
From Tahrir Square…
Tahrir Square is probably the best-known square in Egypt: most people in Europe have heard of it through the media in the context of the revolution that began on January 25, 2011. Tahrir Square is at a central location (as far as this can be said in a megacity with an estimated 25 million inhabitants) and carries much symbolic meaning. It has become a symbol of resistance and the site of sometimes bloody clashes between protesters and security forces. It has been described often, and it still appears in pictures and videos broadcast by international media. Days and weeks during which protesters assemble here and fight for their rights are followed by days and weeks during which the square is open to traffic, and people, for the most part, go about their everyday business and simply pass through on their way – until it is claimed again by protesters and tents.
… to Lazoughli and Soliman Gohar Square
Of course there are many more public squares in Cairo, small as well as big ones, even if they are not under the spotlight of the media and are of less significance in terms of national security and interest. For the residents living around these squares, however, they play an important role in everyday life. This report is about two such squares: the so-called Lazoughli Square and Soliman Gohar Square.
Lazoughli Square is located east of the Nile, close to the Ministry of Interior in the Mounira neighbourhood. It used to be very busy, and it has several traffic lanes and an anonymous feel. It is quieter today, for the obvious reason that the military or Ministry of Interior repeatedly put up barriers in downtown Cairo and Mounira in order to protect the ministry and other public buildings from protesters, to split up broad avenues and interrupt or stop demonstrations.
Soliman Gohar Square is located west of the Nile on a street of the same name, a street known all over Cairo for its cheap and lively fruit and vegetable market. This market, however, is also notorious for piles of rubbish deposited by the residents for garbage carts to pick up.
There is a lot of traffic through this little square, which only has one traffic lane, and the entire neighbourhood is very lively and crowded with shopping pedestrians. There is a rather familial atmosphere to it. In the middle of the square there is a circular patch of vegetation, and around the square – as well as in the whole neighbourhood – there are plenty of trees.
Superficially, these two squares do not seem to have much in common. What connects them for Mahatat for contemporary art, however, is that we chose both as temporary sites for our first large-scale project, Shaware3na (which translates as “our streets”). Mahatat means “stations” or “stops”: we see ourselves as a mobile initiative for art in public space and community art projects.
March 11, 2012, Station: Lazoughli Square
Or: “An Open-Air Living Room”
We all meet at Yara Mekawei’s studio. Yara is an audio artist, a filmmaker and the curator of today’s Mahatat event, Public Screen. Her idea is to show various works of video art from the Arab world on a screen that is not much bigger than a normal living-room TV. However, she wants to do this under the open sky for passersby and those who are interested in art and have heard about the event.
We arrive at Lazoughli Square and meet the technicians and our security team there. Before we started the Shaware3na project, we thought a lot about the question of permits and security. Should we approach the authorities and apply for permission to use public space? And how would we guarantee the safety of our artists and our team? Based on our fundamental conviction that public space belongs to citizens and that it is a human right to express oneself freely in it, we finally decided against applying for official permits. However, in order to allow the artists to focus on their performance, we hired a small security and communications team of two to four men. Today, in Lazoughli Square, they are in charge of negotiating with a café owner, as it is “his” sidewalk we would like to use. The use of public space is handled in a very informal manner in Egypt. The café owner has been here for years using this sidewalk. He has put out tables and chairs and has decorated the trees on the side of the street with strings of colourful lights. He takes care of this little area of public space, he has assumed responsibility for it, and has thus, in our view, more say over it than any state institution. And today, this café owner gives us permission to use the corner that the sidewalk forms with the square. He also supplies electricity, a few chairs, tables and drinks.
Yara and the technicians set up the screen, testing the connection with the computer and whether the films play correctly. We arrange our equipment on the sidewalk in a way that leaves space for viewers and passersby. In this manner we prepare the edge of the square without disrupting the flow of cars.
After the general rehearsal has run smoothly, we have enough time for a coffee or juice as we wait together for nightfall. The mime Amr Abd Elaziz, who was with us for the earlier performance in the metro, has arrived by now and starts to paint his face while we have our drinks. We have asked Amr to advertise our event in costume. Now and then, people glance at the still dark screen. Most walk on.
An hour before the screening starts, Amr gets to work. Holding flyers in his hands, he steps out into the street and starts directing traffic. Cars stop; their drivers are curious to find out what is going on. Smiling wordlessly, Amr hands out flyers.
As time passes, more and more familiar – and unfamiliar – faces show up and head towards the screen. Most sit on the fence separating the sidewalk from the green patch bordering the street. We ask the café owner to bring more chairs and tables and we promise to order more drinks. The sidewalk continues to fill and there are not enough chairs. A few curious spectators sit down on the floor, but nobody dares settle too close to the screen.
After about an hour, Amr tries to direct pedestrians towards the screen. Finally, he gets Yara, who is visibly excited, and they open the screening together.
Yara welcomes the audience and Amr sits down in the first row, right at the front. The screening begins. As the different videos run, we talk at the fringes of the sidewalk with passersby who have questions and want to know what is going on. A group of traffic cops has dared to come up to the fence to watch what’s happening on the screen. From time to time we emphasise that what we are showing is video art and not a documentary of the 18 days of revolution. Yara steps in, too, and explains at the fringe of the screening in one-on-one talks what she is showing and how she perceives video art.
We are astonished that forty viewers stay for the entire screening. We expected a certain fluctuation, and passersby coming up to linger for a while, ask questions and walk on. There are indeed passersby who stop, but they remain at a distance and are visibly worried about bothering the viewers who have sat down to watch. From afar, they can’t see much, yet they ask questions before setting off again. It almost seems to us as if we are intruding too much into this space and have created our own area: a space which seems almost intimate, with the audience sitting or standing around the screen. Even though we talk to many people, we don’t succeed in letting them take part in the space we have created. Due to a short-sightedness on our part and to factors which, in public space, cannot be planned, we have made a two-hour bubble under the sky. Or perhaps the living room that Yara had initially imagined.
After the last video the crowd disperses; we pack up the screen and pay our bill at the café.
Preview of part 2: Soliman Gohar Square
At Soliman Gohar Square, we planned to focus more on art performed with and for the neighbourhood. We wanted to do something together, instead of creating another bubble. How we temporarily changed this space and whether we succeeded in transforming it jointly with the residents will be the subject of part 2 of this contribution.
Translation German to English: Claudia Walder / edited by Jenifer Evans
German version of this article
*First article – Democratisation of Art in Egypt? – published on 6.1.2013
*Second article – Courage for Art: Women Story-Tellers Turn Cairo’s Metro into a Stage – published on 12.4.2013
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Photography: Lazoughli Square: Mina Nasr, courtesy of Mahatat, Soliman-Gohar Square: Timo (Medhat Amin), courtesy of Mahatat.