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.

10:30

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…

Temporary Artistic Uses of Public Space: Two Less Famous Squares in Cairo (Part 1)

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.

Lazoughli Square

Lazoughli Square

Soliman Gohar Square

Soliman Gohar Square

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. Weiterlesen…