Temporary Artistic Uses of Public Space: Two Less Famous Squares in Cairo (Part 2)

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.

Soliman Gohar Square

Soliman Gohar Square

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.


Soliman Gohar Square

Soliman Gohar Square

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. Weiterlesen…