‘Reimagined Narratives’ brings heritage and art together

Art D’Egypte also collects in-kind donations to the historic sites where it exhibits its art events. (Supplied)
Updated 22 November 2019

‘Reimagined Narratives’ brings heritage and art together

  • Art D’Egypte’s latest exhibition featured works that constructed new stories for the ancient heart of Islamic Cairo
  • Malak Shenouda, executive director of Art D’Egypte, is explaining the idea behind an artwork displayed in Moheb al-Din Hall

CAIRO: “As women of that era walked down the streets (of Islamic Cairo), all you could see of them was their jewelry. Everything else was covered up, these walks being their only interaction with public space.”

Malak Shenouda, executive director of Art D’Egypte, is explaining the idea behind an artwork displayed in Moheb al-Din Hall, one of four heritage sites on Cairo’s El-Mu’iz Street hosting the Art D’Egypte exhibition “Reimagined Narratives,” which ended November 9.

The artwork she is discussing was created by Egyptian artist Sherin Guirguis and comprises two huge kinetic sculptures — “Qasr Al-Shoaq” and “El-Sokareya,” named after the second and third installments of Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” which served as the main inspiration for the artwork.

Mimicking the shape of “traditional Arabic jewelry” and made of materials “similar to harem mashrabiyyas,” the plywood sculptures “reference a woman’s body as she walks down a public street,” reads the concept statement.

The artwork was created by Egyptian artist Sherin Guirguis. (Supplied)

“Where we stand was the party hall and women were only allowed to take a peek at parties from upstairs,” says Shenouda, as we continue our tour of the hall.

“After setting up the exhibition we realized that all three artists exhibiting in this hall are women,” Shenouda says, explaining how this constituted a real “reimagining” of the space and its identity, considering that “women weren’t actually ever allowed here.”

“Reimagined Narratives” was curated by Art D’Egypte’s founder and curator Nadine Abdel Ghaffar and exhibited works by 28 contemporary Egyptian artists. Besides Moheb Al-Din Hall, exhibition sites included Bayt Al-Suhaymi, Qalawun Complex and Maq’ad Mamay Al-Sayfi Hall.

The artworks spanned a range of mediums, including art, video, mixed media and Integrated Virtual Reality installations, as well as sculptures, paintings, 3D projection mapping and a live painting performance. Each artwork was a response to this year’s curatorial statement — that the exhibition should “delve into the stories of people, places and things that have coexisted in one street (El-Mu’iz) for over 1,000 years.”

The artwork was created by Egyptian artist Ibrahim Ahmed. (Supplied)

“People have lived on this street for 1,050 years,” says Shenouda. “Even though it’s a heritage site, it’s still evolving and adapting to different cultures.”

The three-week exhibition was an invitation to artists to “question the historical narratives associated with this space and to also question whether these narratives are true, complete, fabricated, or whether we need to reimagine them (altogether),” says Shenouda.

The results were “site-specific artworks that elevate rather than emulate the narrative of these spaces,” reads a press release by Art D’Egypte.

One example is “Utopian Midnight,” a group of six stunning paintings by Egyptian-Greek visual artist Farida El-Gazzar, who Shenouda says was “drawn to the landscape of Bayt Al-Suhaymi and tried to communicate that in her paintings.” El-Gazzar stresses her connection with the house in her concept statement, specifying as her focus “the greenery — palms and other trees — surrounding the premises as it creates a harmonious transition and prepares the visitor before entering the magnificently detailed interior spaces.” She adds that her aim was to “recreate this experience in a walk around the house, bringing the outdoor into these intricate rooms.”

The paintings are by Egyptian-Greek visual artist Farida El-Gazzar. (Supplied)

Egyptian visual artist and interior architect Karim El-Hayawan’s reinterpretation took him elsewhere — to “random street observations in Cairo.” In his video installation, exhibited in Qalawun Complex and titled “Caught Up, Somewhere Down,” El-Hayawan incorporates Cairo street life into a visual work that “reflects on the perception of history and its perpetual state of being rewritten,” according to his concept statement.

This exercise of reinterpretation underpins another magnificent artwork, “Nobody Knows Where They Are,” by artist Ibrahim Ahmed. Exhibited at Bayt Al-Suhaymi, the artwork comprises a chandelier installation and two textile works. The chandelier is an assemblage of found junk, including “armchairs, window frames, and a prosthetic leg,” discovered by Ahmed on the rooftop of a building close to El-Mu‘iz. Ahmed’s repurposed chandelier “create(s) a dialogue with the surrounding area that is precisely curated and heavily preserved in a profoundly controlled historical narrative,” reads the concept statement.

“Ahmed’s work is a reimagining of the (street’s) history through the general public’s experience of it,” adds Shenouda.

Some of this year’s artworks were a result of residencies held for artists at local Egyptian factories, a collaboration that allowed Art D’Egypte to ease production costs of some art pieces while also “engaging more of the private sector in Egypt,” Shenouda says.

Egyptian visual artist and interior architect Karim El-Hayawan’s reinterpretation took him elsewhere. (Supplied)

“One work was a huge metal structure. Once the design and concept were ready, we put the artist in touch with an iron factory to help them create this art piece by providing materials, machinery, et cetera,” explains Shenouda.

In fact, it is Art D’Egypte’s reliance on a “private-public partnership model” that makes the realization of such large-scale event possible. Art D’Egypte also collects in-kind donations to the historic sites where it exhibits its art events, in an attempt to “leave the space a bit better than when we came in,” says Shenouda.

“Through our collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities, we try to encourage private-sector companies to donate to these spaces,” she adds. Donations to this year’s heritage sites include interior lighting and landscape renovations. For its part, Art D’Egypte donated permanent fire extinguishers and security cameras.

This artwork was created by Karim El-Hayawan. (Supplied)

Beyond the exhibition component, Art D’Egypte runs an educational collateral program, which this year hosted public lectures by art professionals and curators held in parallel to the exhibition. The consultancy also hosts a Cultural Awareness Program to engage the community of historic Cairo by “help[ing] raise awareness to the value of our heritage and how to safeguard it.” The program comprises “The Theatre of Cultural Values,” an array of street theatre performances “tailored to convey values focusing on the importance of art and creativity, the protocol of visiting historical and artistic spaces, our history and identity,” according to the press release.

Another component of the Cultural Awareness Program is a series of workshops titled “The Heritage Guardians,” delivered by “specialists in the fields of contemporary art, heritage-awareness and archeology for students of the neighborhood.”

“We try to be more inclusive and to make arts and culture more accessible,” Shenouda says.

El-Gazzar stresses her connection with the house in her concept statement. (Supplied)

This is Art D’Egypte’s third annual exhibition following “Eternal Light- A Night of Art at the Egyptian Museum” (2017) and “Nothing Vanishes, Everything Transforms” (Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik’s Manial Palace, 2018). But “Reimagined Narratives” was the organization’s most ambitious project so far.

“This year’s exhibition is in a much bigger space; is engaging the public much more, and is much more exposed,” says Shenouda. 

A retrospective of “Reimagined Narratives” can be seen at Abu Dhabi Art Fair from November 21-23.

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.