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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.