Cairoscape – Imagination and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City | babelmed
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Cairoscape consists of an exhibition of contemporary art at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, of two off-site projects in the city, and of a programme of events including films, performances, concerts, literature, discussions, workshops in collaboration with several Berlin based institutions, over the duration of the exhibition.
Cairoscape – Imagination and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City | babelmed
Cairoscape aims at stimulating exchange and mutual interests between Germany and Egypt, countries that know each other very little in terms of contemporary culture. Europe represents for Egypt one of the most important source-regions for the tourism market, with tens of thousands of visitors invading the Egyptian coasts and archaeological sites every year without truly encountering the local culture, especially contemporary culture. Cairoscape goes beyond the commonplace and the mutually stereotyped representations that exist between Europe and Egypt, and places the accent on exchange, research and trans-disciplinarity. Art and culture are thereby intended also as knowledge instruments, offering a counterpart to the stereotypical images of Egypt and other Arabic countries propagated through Western media, especially after the events of September 11th and the Iraq and Lebanon wars.

With the Arab-African megalopolis as its point of departure, Cairoscape proposes a different way of looking at the modern city and at the phenomenon of contemporary urbanization. The phenomena that afflict Cairo – overpopulation, urban ruralization as a consequence of the abandonment of cultivable land by farmers moving to the capital; pollution, traffic, social discrimination; flexibility and growth of the informal sector; endemic unemployment, progressive disappearance of the middle class, corruption, insufficient political participation – are also phenomena partially present, in varying degrees and scales, in many contemporary European and Western cities. To put it in the words of Diane Singermann and Paul Amar, editors of the collection of essays Cairo Cosmopolitan (AUC, Cairo-New York, 2006) while the Western media focus overwhelmingly on questions of Middle Eastern religiosity and conflicts, in Cairo, as well as in other metropolises of the Arab world, “the future of urban modernity and political globalism is taking shape.” In Cairoscape , Cairo is held up as an emblematic place, catalyst and generator of new narrative series that ultimately transcend local context: Cairo as translocal place, simultaneously recipient and origin of a set of cultural influences and ideas floating in the region, and privileged observation point that as such may disclose unexpected yet familiar scenarios.

EXHIBITION: CAIROSCAPE OR A JOURNEY INTO CAIRO

For centuries Cairo has been the cultural capital of the Arabic-speaking countries, originating its most important literature, songs, and films. "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world," asserts a character in the Thousand and One Nights . "Its dust is gold; its Nile is a wonder; its houses are palaces; its air is temperate; its odour surpassing that of aloe wood and cheering the heart." This poetic description provides quite a contrast to present-day Cairo, dirty, suffocatingly hot, overcrowded and hugely polluted as it is. Yet Cairo, with its extreme density and intensity, and its idiosyncrasies, continues to be a source of enchantment and fascination for travellers and for its inhabitants.

Cairoscape – Images, Imagination and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City takes us on a journey into and within today’s Cairo as seen through the works of the eighteen participating artists. The artists either come from Egypt or have recently completed residencies in the country. In their works they reflect a certain contemporary and existential urban condition connected to the city of Cairo, its suggestive power and collective imaginary, its appearance and its unconscious, and the histories and dreams of its inhabitants. Imagination, wild associations, non-linear narratives and an adventurous mix of fact and fiction are distinctive of the approach of artists such as Sherif El Azma (Cairo), Shady El Noshokaty (Cairo), Katarina Šević (Budapest), Iman Issa (Cairo/New York) and Hala Elkoussy (Cairo/Amsterdam). In their works, dreams, visions, poetry and histories overlap in suggestive, poetic ensembles where the city emerges transfigured and reinvented. Elkoussy’s film We’re By The Sea Now (2006) is structured in thirteen episodes of seemingly disparate anecdotal events, personal accounts, tales and hearsay. For the artist, “What appear to be banal actions, obvious choices and clear directions mandated by everyday necessities, unveil more central questions: How can and is the topography of a megalopolis navigated? How does one mark its permeable history? And most crucially, how does one negotiate a position within the masses, under the overbearing pressures of consumerism, social norms and political apathy?”

Remarkable inventiveness and great ability to constantly adapt to changing living conditions shape the relationship of the Cairenes with their environment. Rana El Nemr (Cairo) and Maha Maamoun (Cairo), both photographers, in their photo series present unusual and unexpected points of view on prosaic details of the cityscape. Maamoun looks for an idea or surrogate of nature in the city, and finds it in the colourful dresses and veils of the women of Cairo; El Nemr reassembles photographs of painted balconies taken in the vernacular districts and in the informal housing areas of Cairo into imaginative collages of residential blocks.

The layers of history embedded in the city of Cairo are themes to the works by Susanne Kriemann (Rotterdam/Berlin) and Hermann Huber (Vienna), who during residencies in Cairo did research on its architecture and urban space. Kriemann shows the transformations of the megalopolis through a collection of archival images of the pharaonic statue of Ramses II and its surroundings. In Nasser’s era the statue symbolized the roots of the Egyptian nation and was set in front of Cairo’s central station where it stayed until, in 2006, was moved due to preservation issues. Hermann Huber films an abandoned, decaying colonial department store in the middle of Cairo, that is filled nowadays with small sweatshops. Huber’s tableau vivant is a psychological portrait of a building, and shows another side of contemporary globalization.

Cairo, like all third world metropolises, is primarily a city of migrants from the countryside, and to them it shows a very different face of modernity: anonymity, great opportunities and new horizons, but also alienation and a prohibitively high cost of living. With its estimated 15 to 25 million inhabitants, the Egyptian capital is the largest metropolis of the Middle East and Africa and ranks as one of the world’s largest cities, and probably the densest with an average of 70,000 persons per square mile. The informal housing areas in the peripheries of Cairo ( ashway’iyat , literally: random), large red bricks agglomerates built according to no plan, where the poor live in often appalling conditions, are home to estimated five million people, scattered throughout more than one hundred informal communities. In her installation Nermine El Ansari (Cairo) juxtaposes paintings inspired by these informal agglomerates in the surroundings of Cairo and paintings with concrete buildings in commercial districts. Informal communities are even populating the rooftops of the central districts of Cairo. The invisible rooftop dwellers are the protagonists of the black and white photo series Under the Same Sky: Rooftops of Cairo (2002-2003) by Randa Shaath (Cairo). Doa Aly (Cairo) looks into another almost invisible community in the Egyptiann capital: that of Chinese female immigrants who work in Egypt on tourist visas, selling cheap clothing (made in China) door to door.

The themes of transformation, density and urban condition inform the works by Khaled Hafez (Cairo), Christoph Oertli (Basel/Brussels), and Hany Rashed (Cairo), all using different media. Hafez’ aerial cityscapes freeze a surreal Cairo during extreme light conditions at sunset and dawn. In his film Cairo Oertli empties the city of its crowds, leaving the protagonist to drift completely alone through the deserted city: a most unlikely situation in present-day Cairo. Rashed on the other hand, playfully fills up the exhibition space with a crowd of small sculptures portraying urban life and the varied population of Cairo’s public spaces.

Street sellers and workers, car horns, calls to prayers, coffee shop conversations, whistles, recorded music, mobile phones, car alarms, stray dogs and wild bird colonies: for sound artist Gilles Aubry (Berlin) the Cairo soundscape is a sleepless conversation. His immersive sound installation for Cairoscape provides the visitors to the exhibition with an acoustic journey through the mega city. Travelling, and the difficulty for Egyptians to travel abroad due to restrictive western visa policies, are addressed by Aubry as well as by Maia Gusberti (Vienna). Gusberti’s series of photographs Travel.agencies is a project about visual representations of travelling on the basis of the aesthetic of the travel agencies in the Cairo Downtown area, where the foreign destinations are not represented by images but by aged world maps, leaving it to the rare clientele to imagine the places they will travel to. Travelling, going abroad to find work and better living conditions, is a mirage to most young Egyptians. According to statistics, 80% of youngsters under twenty-five (i.e. 65% of the entire Egyptian population) want to go to the West, but obtaining the visas to leave the country is very difficult.

Social issues and in particular the question of male identity in contemporary Egyptian society are central in Cairo-based Ahmed Khaled’s experimental film production. His latest film Fish Eye offers a subtle and contradictory perspective on the urban life in Cairo, as seen from the viewpoint of a unemployed, middle-class Egyptian man in his thirties, who suffers from insomnia. As unemployment is endemic in Cairo, the nameless protagonist of the film embodies an entire generation of young people without jobs and without prospects. Ahmed Khaled displays in a surreal and rather ruthless way the position of the marooned Egyptian man a in modern, perfunctory society. The question suspended throughout the film is: with such a life, does it really matter whether he sleeps or not?
(04/09/2008)

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