Some sort of secret pact seems to have been signed between the worlds of Egyptian Bohemia and car mechanics, with the result that independent art and cultural centres sprout in Cairo’s Downtown auto mechanics’ areas like fungus on trees. While the incongruity of these centres’ settings is palpable each time one passes from the grimy caustic chaos of exhaust pipes and engines into their airy sedateness, there is nonetheless a certain logic in the location and the urban vigour and vitality which is perhaps lacking from the gentrified order of Cairo’s wealthier suburbs.
As a blonde female in jeans I experienced this vitality at least three times as I battled my way through Maarouf Street and its super-friendly mechanics en route to ‘Cairo Talking Heads: the City as a Soundscape,’ an experimental blog project which promised to address issues such as ‘cultural hybridity’, ‘intranslatability’ and other concepts unknown to Microsoft Word’s spell checker, using a technique described as ‘speech imitation’.
In the event I and the other bemused attendees found ourselves listening to recordings of two non-Arabic speaking Swiss men speaking Arabic with an excruciating accent, sometimes against a backdrop of the sounds of an Egyptian street. The duo - a writer and a Liam Neeson lookalike musician who call themselves Teeth and Tongue - explained that the point of the project was to listen to the sounds of Cairo and the language of its inhabitants without making value judgements, by having Egyptians send them voice recordings of things said in Arabic, which Teeth or Tongue would then repeat, without understanding a word. They also recorded snatches of conversation overheard in the public space, on streets and in the recent downtown demonstrations.
As a Cairene it was an entirely odd experience to have to listen in reverential silence to the city’s unremarkable everyday sounds, and the process was only made odder by the addition of the sound of Teeth and Liam Nee-Tongue mangling Arabic in their weird Yoda-like voices. This exoticisation of the ordinary I found vaguely troubling, because in asking us to join them in their wonderment at the new and unusual sounds they have discovered, Teeth and Tongue demonstrate an indifference to the culture which supposedly forms the object of their study, but which in the process is reduced to the servant bringing tea to the master doing his bizarre vocal exercises.
The collision of two worlds was given a very different, and arguably more successful treatment at the Townhouse, which on Sunday launched On the Street, its exhibition of paintings by street children. The project originally began in the late nineties, when artist Huda Lutfi was invited to a drop-in centre for street children run by Kamal Fahmy. There she discovered the children drawing “the pyramids, the sun and the Egyptian flag,” and asked them to instead use their own experiences for inspiration. These weekly encounters produced art which was displayed at the British Council, the French Cultural Centre and the Townhouse, until the drop-in centre was closed by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2001 and all the paintings were lost - but not before some had been scanned and saved.
I have a low tolerance for children’s art, and generally prefer that the little darlings’ efforts be confined to their parents’ fridges, but many of the images on display at the Townhouse are deeply affecting, and the sadness and terror conveyed jar uncomfortably with the crude naivety of the compositions’ form. The emotional impact of the paintings is made even more intense by the description, in the children’s own words, of the experiences which drove them to homelessness and how the opportunity to paint has affected their lives, related in the book accompanying the exhibition. Fourteen year-old Rami describes the effect that seeing his paintings appreciated by others had on him by saying, “when I see the foreigners looking at them, and the Arabs looking at them, saying they are beautiful, I feel a strong happiness. I sit aside alone and think, why do they say it’s beautiful? Why did they bring them here?”
Accompanying On the Street is a photographic exhibit by Hesham Labib. Cut Short, a collection of portraits of five street children, is inspired by Tahani Rached’s 2006 documentary film ‘al banat dowl’ which presented a harrowing glimpse into the world of Cairo’s street children. Despite their vulnerability and the misery of their circumstances, Rached’s homeless girls demonstrate a proud resilience which defies pity, and it is similarly this which defines Labib’s photographs: the cinematic quality of these images, their pared down simplicity and above all their subjects combine to make beautiful images. Even the infuriating and presumably deliberate absence of any kind of background information about the photographs and their subjects only contributed to their enigma.
I left Cut Short impressed and moved only to be depressed and confused by the exhibit in the Factory space downstairs. Being decidedly lowbrow and dense when it comes to installation art, it was only the presence of a sign explaining what the bloody hell was going on that stopped me mistaking it for e.g. a building site. Monument X, by Tarek Zaki consists of concrete blocks and other objects identifiable as pieces of a dismantled monument, all laid out on the ground like giant grey Lego.
The objects themselves are devoid of any kind of beauty or, dare I say, interest, so I sought recourse to the blurb which told me that the replacement of the ‘traditional vertical apprehension of a monument’ by a ‘new horizontal perspective’ makes for ‘a puzzle which only the viewer’s imagination can solve and complete.’ None the wiser, my imagination and I took our leave.
Originally published in al Ahram Weekly.