In the heart of Cairo, there resides a garage-turned-gallery called Townhouse, home to a diversified collection of art. Last week, it hosted the work of a group of architects, urban designers and artists who are participating in a project called “Process: To Dwell,” which follows the guidelines published in the Sharjah-born Do It In Arabic book and exhibition project. We had the opportunity to speak with some of the artists who had their work displayed in the exhibition that ended on Wednesday.
For inspiration, the team of twenty-somethings working on the project visited two sites in central Cairo: a group of high-rise buildings called “Osman Buildings” in Maadi and a smaller building in Cairo’s colonial downtown. Each development possesses its own unique topography, so some preferred to produce work that compares both directions and others decided to stick with one building.
As much as they wanted to dwell and engage with the residents of the buildings, they couldn’t, as it would require them to go through too much paperwork to get written approval from security. The urban enthusiasts overcame this obstacle, however, and went on to study and discover the impact of these buildings on the inhabitants and the urban environment surrounding it.
Omar Al-Tawansy, 25, is an urban designer at 10 Tooba for Applied Research on the Built Environment. He decided to take the exhibition visitors on a journey of the bigger picture from a bird’s eye perspective.
“I found that there is a huge gap in the absorptive capacity and quality of units between both developments,” Al-Tawansy tells progrss. “Also there are new cities that have been established, but still they don’t occupy enough people; take New Cairo as an example. It was created to take up to 15 million people, and now it only houses 2 million.”
So, the urban designer applied his convictions and arguments to a digital painting of the map of Cairo, presenting the contrasts between heavily populated areas of the capital and much less dense ones.
Mazen Eissa, 26, works as an interior designer who specializes in restaurants and other commercial spaces. He also used the map of Cairo in his digital painting but went in a different direction.
“I took one of the towers of the Osman Buildings as a symbol of Cairo’s urbanization. To me, it represents the way urbanization in Cairo expanded and how it violated agricultural lands — hence the branches penetrating the building — and the random, haphazard urban growth that happened simultaneously,” Eissa tells progrss.
Depicting an arid tree held upside-down in the gloomy orange sky, the artist imagines the tower as Cairo, with the River Nile streaming through its length, buildings growing out of buildings, which is how Eissa views the housing situation in the capital.
Here, Osama El-Sayed, who couldn’t be reached for comment, imagines the building as a monster with horns and multiple eyes, staring at what looks like a post-apocalyptic wastland. But he wasn’t alone with this dystopian vision.
Nada Baraka, 27, also decided to take her audience on a voyage through the urban dystopia, with the Osman Buildings as her muse.
“The way I saw Osman Buildings [conjured] certain keywords such as chaos, surrealism, fantasy and exoticism,” she explains to progrss. Baraka continued to materialize her thoughts and imagination via a faded pallet of colors. “I studied the interiors and started working on the notion of dystopia where everything abstract and surreal with actions is happening,” she adds.
Her work has always been inspired by the form and functionality of the human body and its mechanisms. Here, her work was inspired by action comics and exploding skin-tone colors. Baraka has her own studio and began working as a full-time artist after finishing her MA in Fine Arts at Central Saint Martins, London, along with working at the American University in Cairo as a teaching assistant.
Omar Elmelegy, 26, also an assistant lecturer at the October University for Modern Sciences and Arts, started to brainstorm the keywords and impressions he could extract from what he saw in the towers of Osman Buildings. “[The tower] stands alone, on the Nile, but in context it looks odd,” Elmelegy tells progrss. “So, it doesn’t reflect the potentials imagined when it was first built.”
The architect brought his convictions out onto four small sketches, illustrating how random and informal the towers are, even though it’s a formal development in a high-end district, but due to the absence of order and organization, it looks otherwise.
In another sketch, Elmelegy shows that the towers actually act as a barrier between the residence and the beautiful view of the location they occupy — the River Nile. The third sketch, also adopts a monstrous representation of the buildings while the third was inspired by actual advertisements the artist had crossed paths with while surfing on a commercial search engine with catch phrases like, “Buy this flat on that beautiful Nile view.”
“These ads were very ironic to me, so I decided to use them in the fourth sketch and confront them with the actual buildings.”
“Process: To Dwell” is an attempt to illustrate the housing situation that has been growing and evolving throughout the years. Greater Cairo is home to around 20 million people, and most of the families living in Cairo aren’t originally from the capital. Rarely would you get the answer “Cairo” when asking anyone living in Cairo about their place of origin; they come from provincial cities miles away from the capital. Neglect and lack of both institutional infrastructure and job opportunities have forced people to flee their hometowns and flock to the capital for better lives.
Do It In Arabic is a new iteration of the ongoing “do it” publication and exhibition project originally founded by Obrist in 1993. Its first exhibition was in Sharjah, UAE, in January 2016 and has been echoing in different cities across the Arab world ever since.