This contribution has been written by Astrid Thews. She has been living in Cairo, Egypt, for several years now. Together with Mayada Said and three other women, she 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. Mayada Said and Astrid Thews have been contributing to aminachaudri.ch since January 2013. In their texts, they 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. The current situation in Egypt generates intense media interest. However, in the present contribution published in two parts, the authors tell of the temporary transformations of two squares in Cairo – transformations which are achieved through very different artistic interventions.
As a preliminary remark, Thews would like to say that Mahatat is continuing to realise art projects throughout this year and is planning further projects for next year. Sudden changes of plan are, of course, always possible, as are short-term changes of dates and project venues due to current events. Everyday life, though it may have changed, continues.
Review of part 1: Video art at Lazoughli Square
In the first part of this report, we described our project at Lazoughli Square, close to Egypt’s Ministry of Interior. On a small screen, we showed video art chosen by our curator Yara Mekawei. We recounted how we inadvertently created an intimate space for two hours, into which few passersby dared to intrude.
Nature in the city
Three months later we wanted to transform Soliman Gohar Square, on the other side of the Nile. We wanted to do this together with the neighbourhood, and we wanted to avoid creating another bubble. Soliman Gohar Square is situated west of the Nile on a street of the same name. The street is known throughout Cairo for its affordable and lively fruit and vegetable market. It is also notorious for the rubbish heaps deposited there by residents until they are picked up by garbage carts. There are, of course, countless other such squares in Cairo and Giza – why did we choose this one? First, it is close to our Mahatat office. It seemed fitting to realise our first neighbourhood project in our own neighbourhood. Second, despite having only one driving lane, the small square is much frequented. The whole neighbourhood is very lively and full of shopping pedestrians, and the square, with its family atmosphere, features a circular patch of green in its middle. Around the square and in the neighbourhood as a whole, a large number of trees are growing. Life, liveliness and nature come together in this square in the middle of the city – which is why we chose this location: our project, after all, was about trees.
The residents, their children and their trees
Amr Abd Elaziz, our curator for the exhibition in the square, did a little field research and interviewed people from the neighbourhood on the topic of trees. He found that people showed considerable interest in trees. So the Danish video artist Nanna Guldhammer, who offered a children’s workshop for the project, began spending time in and around Soliman Gohar Square. For a couple of weeks, Nanna drank tea with countless people and listened to their stories. During those weeks, she met the man who had planted most of the trees in the neighbourhood. He proudly led Nanna to different trees and told her which he had planted when.
Together with a few children from the neighbourhood, Nanna, Noha Hesham, Eslam Hamed, Dina Fahmy and Mustafa Nagah created papier-mâché objects and textiles with potato prints. These were to be displayed around the square on the day of the festival we wanted to organise.
June 8, 2012
A few months before, we had decided on this date, a Friday, for our festival. By the end of May, however, demonstrations were being planned for that day, because people were intently awaiting the results of the presidential election. We consulted our partners and the artists and decided to postpone the festival. We didn’t really know until when – after all, who can say what will happen? We waited until the evening. As there was no big news of shocking events, we called the participants again. Jointly, we decided to meet at Soliman Gohar Square the next day.
June 9, 2012, Soliman Gohar Square
A few days before the event, the graffiti and mural artist Mohamed Khaled and his team had painted on the wall of a house. The owner of the house had agreed to have his property decorated with a colourful illustration for one of the stories to be told. Thus the stage was set for the evening: the storytellers would be able to share their stories with the residents in front of the painted wall.
Nanna identified the trees’ species ahead of time. She then asked a calligrapher to write the names of the trees on pieces of fabric. Now, on the day of the festival, she is tying them to the corresponding trees.
We begin our preparations by carrying the objects created in our workshop to Soliman Gohar Square and sorting them. Soon we have attracted about a dozen curious people. With their help, we tie the papier-mâché balloons, painted and decorated plastic bottles, and the pieces of fabric to long wires we suspend between the trees at the edge of the square and the street lights in its middle.
Someone has procured a few tree seedlings. Another resident provides a shovel and water. And many helping hands work to plant the little trees in the square.
We are running a little late. But in collaboration with a sound engineer, we manage to set up speakers in front of the mural. A little while later, Nagla Kora and Ahmed Adel sit down in front of the painted wall and begin to retell the story “The Tree of the Lover” by Mona El Masry. Their echoing voices quickly attract a small crowd of children and adults.
And then something happens that nobody expected: staff from the municipality arrive. With large vehicles they approach the storytellers. To everyone’s annoyance, three technicians sent by the municipality start repairing the broken street light right next to the audience. The timing may be unfortunate, but the residents are glad that their square will soon be lit properly again. Meanwhile the storytellers finish their fable, to the applause of their young and not-so-young listeners.
My personal highlight of the transformation of this little square comes about shortly after the storytelling is over. A few weeks in advance, Amr had gotten permission from a home owner here to use the open entrance of their building for a small exhibition. Stepping through a round arch, I reach an open entrance way. On its left wall, pastel paintings by Amr Okacha are shown, and on the right wall, photographs by Timo. A single spotlight sheds a dim light. Twelve-year-old Eslam, who lives in this neighbourhood, spontaneously guides me through the exhibition: “Here you can see the tree being planted, here how it grows, and here how it is used and processed.” As he describes them, he points at Amr Okacha’s drawings. Then he pulls me over to the other side and says: “Look, in these pictures, everything is somehow made from trees: from the wood, from the leaves, from the blossoms.”
Barbara Usai and Mahmoud Eman call us back to the square. They want to let balloons fly together with the children – attached are greetings from Soliman Gohar Square, written on postcards that show trees from the neighbourhood and the papier-mâché objects. A few of these greetings only make it as far as the treetops; others float into the evening sky.
Should we leave the papier-mâché elephant, which took great pains to create, standing in the middle of the square? Yes, for it belongs here, says Nanna. And should it get disassembled, destroyed or stolen, that’s the way it is. It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the square.
In the next blog contribution, I will attempt two leaps: a leap in time to the year 2013 and a leap to another location, the Delta. Since the end of 2012, Mahatat has been working intensively outside Cairo. We have met many inspiring people and had many experiences worth telling.
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
*Third article – Temporary Artistic Uses of Public Space: Two Less Famous Squares in Cairo (Part 1) – published on 27.2.2014
Information: Mahatat Collective Website
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Photography: Timographya (Medhad Amin)