Streets apart

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.

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8 Responses to Streets apart

  1. fully_polynomial says:

    A — i’ve been more and more enjoying your effortless switching from inane posts like the my queen one to commentaries like this post (although, of course, you’re not one to leave your sarcasm at home. ever.)

    the middle part of this piece was moving. i am not a very hopeful person in general, but things like this, for some reason, lift my spirit. at least momentarily. thanks.

  2. Amnesiac says:

    Thanks mate, kind words indeed :-)

  3. Anonymous says:

    I found your blog by chance, while googling my show- Monument X! First I was impressed that someone who doesn’t understand.. installation art, could still get the concept. The ‘giant grey Lego’ parts, mistaking the space for a ‘building site’. This is exactly what I meant to say!! Glad to see that someone who (describes herself as) lowbrow and dense when it comes to art could still get the meaning behind the piece.
    What surprises me.. (not really), is that Aharm Weekly hires someone who doesn’t know much about art to cover ‘independant culture’!!
    Keep it up!
    TZ

  4. Amnesiac says:

    Tarek!
    Thanks for giving me your feedback rather than e.g. throwing hard objects at my head.

    I’m not sure if you were being serious about me getting the concept Monument X conveys. I would be amazed if you were. If you have a moment look at this:
    http://allthegoodnameshadgone.blogspot.com/2006/10/money-for-old-rope-polemic-on-modern.html

    …to understand where I’m coming from. I really would like the secret of understand installation art to be revealed to me, because at the moment it feels like everyone is enjoying a private joke to which I am not privy.

    As for the Weekly hiring a layman…I was most definitely hired for abilities other than art appreciation (in the traditional sense) as we have both remarked on, but I think actually, that my not having much of a clue is the point, somehow.

    Anyway no hard feelings, and for every buffoon like me I’m sure that there is someone else who really understands and feels your stuff. Peace.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well, I’m not really a big fan of blogs and stuff, so I will just add a small comment after reading the link you gave me. It’s amazing, You chose to waste your time making fun of Phil Collins and Rebecca Warren and their likes, while you could be reading more about contemporary art.. trying to understand the ‘joke’ that everyone else is laughing at. But it felt to me like it was more of a personal thing between you and contemporary artists.
    If you don’t like Haiku, fine.. read Danielle Steel, but why waste your time attacking Haiku?
    More than a century ago, Paul Gauguin was laughed at ’cause he painted the people in yellow and the sea in red! History repeats itself.
    As I said, I’m not into Blogs, so I will let bloggers do their thing! whatever that thing is.

  6. Will E. says:

    Mr. Tariq,

    I notice that you yourself say you’re not a big fan of blogs, while blogs are just words on the mind of people, expressing what they’re thinking. I’m sure installation art must be based on a similar idea, but I have personally seen monument X and I would like to know if Amnesiac’s understanding is correct.

    It may be expressing something, but somehow for the untrained mind there is a certain guidance that is needed.

    It would be beneficial if you gave us all some guidance on the blog instead of telling us that you’re not that much into blogs and taking the time to visit a blog and tell us that you’re not that much into blogs.

  7. Amnesiac says:

    Tarek,

    1. Wasting time on Phil Collins et al – note the title of this blog.

    2. Reading books about contemporary art – I assure you that I have dipped into one or two. To me, art should be more immediate. I shouldn’t have to read the accompanying instructions.

    3. Haiku vs. Danielle Steel hehe, nice analogy, but in my opinion you have fallen into the trap of correlating what you presumably perceive as ‘real’ art with unquestionable quality while dismissing anything with popular appeal as rubbish. I do not have the same approach.

    4. I like Gauguin but am not overly keen on Danielle Steel.

    5. re. the yellow people and red sea: I am not wholly opposed to anything avant garde. My problem is with installation art as a medium – a problem I share with several, knowledgeable art enthusiasts of my acquaintance, might I add. I would have really valued the opportunity for you to share with me your vision of installation art, but I sense that you are really angered by my approach and possibly even my general existence, which brings me to my next point, which is that:

    6. I had never heard of, met or seen the artists I refer to in the Turner Prize post before writing it, and only saw Collins being interviewed for two minutes, making it pretty much impossible for me to personalise the attack on them themselves. My criticism is limited to their art.

    7. ‘Blogs and stuff’ are surely just another form of self-expression, of varying quality. If you’re not of a literary bent I can understand why you dont go for them, but some of the best writing I have read has been on blogs.

    8. Yes you are right about Gauguin, art always has its detractors, but if you put something in the public space then surely you must be prepared for the positive and the negative? I cannot understand why you seem so majorly pissed at my comments: plebians are allowed into art exhibitions too, mate, and my opinion is as irrelevant or as relevant as anyone else’s…Unless you are suggesting that only the opinions of those who ‘fully understand’ installation art should be considered?

    Again, peace.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hello again!

    * I read your blog and I laughed it off, but then later I read the same blog in Ahram weekly, and then I got pissed. what belongs on a blog, is not always what can be published somewhere like Ahram as part of the ‘Culture’ section.
    * Will E: I’m here, as I said before, as a result of googling Monument X, yes, we-contemporary artists- do google our own work sometimes! And I’m back again ‘cause I expected Sara to write back.
    * I think people should make some effort before accusing art as being inaccessible. Sure everyone has the right to view art and go to galleries and say what they Think.. but that’s after they.. Think.
    It’s so easy to look at something and say Oh, I don’t understand.. im outta here.

    *I didn’t say Danielle Steel was rubbish. But as Titanic is different from.. Kubrick or David Lynch’s stuff for example. I’ve watched Titanic, but some people can only digest or appreciate Titanic. It’s not about what’s ‘real’ art and what’s not.. hmm, ok, let me put it this way: if you do not like Danielle Steel, read Shakespeare, instead of wasting your time attacking Steel.. and let Steel lovers read Steel as long as it doesn’t do you no harm.

    * I didn’t mean you had something against Collins or Warren, but what I meant was: wasting so much time and effort on attacking them makes it seem like you have something against them..and against artists in general.

    * Surely there’s a lot of bull S*** done under the name of Conceptual Art, but there’s also a lot of valuable works out there to see and read about.

    *We have a great lack of art criticism in Egypt, and when Ahram hires someone like you- who has read a book or 2 as you say about contemporary art- it only worsen this problem and lack of real criticism. Ahram has proven more than once to be an unreliable source of information, so it doesn’t come as a real surprise. And now you try to justify their choice by saying you were chosen for ‘other skills’ (?). When you write the culture column of such a widespread and well known publication, without enough –if any- knowledge then it’s a crime. I cannot write the Economy column in Ahram saying I was hired for my writing skills, while I have no Economical background or education at all. This will simply turn the Economy page into a joke. I don’t see any reason Arts should be treated differently.

    * As for installation, or video art, being inaccessible: If you read Hegel or Heidegger unprepared or without giving it enough time and effort to really get it, you will end up calling philosophy bombastic bull s***, which many people do.

    ** I didn’t fall “into the trap of correlating what I presumably perceive as ‘real’ art with unquestionable quality while dismissing anything with popular appeal as rubbish” I guess you did so.. calling this as rubbish and that as nonsense.. and I quote:. “his stupid meaningless nonsense” “she is passing off glass as diamonds”..
    -or “She has basically taken a lump of clay, or poo, or whatever it is, smacked it about a few times to make an amorphous mess, baked it, seen that it is still an amorphous mess, and thought to herself “hmm…how can I pull one over on the tossers on the Turner Prize Committee and win me some green… I know! I’ll put a nipple on it!”
    THESE ARE THE WORDS OF SOMEONE WRITING THE ‘CULTURE’ COLUMN IN AHARM WEEKLY-REVIEWING ART SHOWS AND OTHER ‘CULTURAL’ EVENTS!!!

    WHAT CULTURE??

    *** So to make it short: If you believe contemporary art is full of rubbish-as you said in your other blog- and installation art is inaccessible, then don’t bother and go to these kind of art shows, let alone review it!

    ****if you or any of your readers have any more comments, kindly email them to me.
    TZ

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