History and contemporary art meet on Cairo’s Moez street in Reimagined Narratives exhibition

by Soha El Sirgany

November 7, 2019

In the third edition of what has quickly become one of the largest events in Cairo’s art scene, Art D’Egypte juxtaposes the work of 28 Egyptian artists with the historic sites of Old Cairo. 

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‘Reimagined Narratives: From Spatial Memory to Mapping the Future’ presented 28 installations from Egypt’s most active contemporary artists, set within four historic sites on Cairo’s iconic El-Moez Street. The ambitious showcase aims to “present works that play with time and place, challenging existing narratives and offering alternative histories,” as Art D’Egypte’s curatorial statement reads.

Founded and headed by Nadine Ghaffar, Art D’Egypte is an arts consultancy which over the past three years has organized pop-up exhibitions at different heritage sites across Egypt.

The artists of Reimagined Narratives include several established names alongside emerging artists of a younger generation. They all present site-specific works that aim to converse with the historic sites they would occupy: The Qalawun Complex, Bayt Al-Suhaimi, Muhib Al-Din Hall, and Maq'ad Mamay Al-Sayfi.

Some works were more direct in this discourse than others, some were more effective, or more engaging, but overall the initiative is a unique and impressive feat, igniting questions and conversations about space, context and content. While it’s impossible to round up all the work, here are some of the highlights from a walk through the show.

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At the Qalawun complex, Huda Lutfi and Yasmine El-Meleegy take up a section of what used to be the hospital wing (the Bimaristan) of the 13th century Mamluk building. The dynamic between their separate projects was riveting and invited viewers to linger and explore both in more depth.

Huda Lutfi, Untitled, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Huda Lutfi, Untitled, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

El-Meleegy explores the relationship between object and history in her work titled Bimaristan Qalawun Gift Shop. It consists of 3-D sculpted reproductions of 17th and 18th-century ivory anatomical eye models, taken from The Pharmazie-Historisches Museum in Basel. Rows of eyes on bright orange stands are placed on glass shelves, mimicking mass-produced souvenirs at a gift shop. Outside the glass cube that makes this shop, there is a marble sculpture of the same object, but the eye is on the ground as if fallen from its 1-meter-high stand beside it.

Yasmeen El-Meleegy, Bimaristan Qalawun Gift Shop, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Yasmeen El-Meleegy, Bimaristan Qalawun Gift Shop, 2019, Installation: Mixed media (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

With the Qalawun Eye Hospital (built in 1902) still operating in the vicinity, El-Meleegy’s objects gain their power from the context that entwines the present with the history of Islamic ophthalmology and western pharmaceutical artefacts.

Yasmeen El-Meleegy, Bimaristan Qalawun Gift Shop, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Yasmeen El-Meleegy, Bimaristan Qalawun Gift Shop, 2019, Installation: Mixed media (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Across the courtyard from Meleegy’s display, Lutfi’s installation takes up three small rooms. The artist and historian delved into the Bimaristan’s endowment documents and records of practices held at the hospital, some of which she displayed in a glass vitrine. In one of the compartments, she arranged wooden cabinets with 13th-century medical items. There are medical bottles and tools, extracts of manuscripts on medical herbs, and diagrams of various body parts, including several eyes. The eyes are the most visual association to Meleegy’s work, but it is how both projects tie space, time and object that makes them work so well in tandem.

Huda Lutfi, Untitled, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Huda Lutfi, Untitled, 2019, Installation (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

In another space, Lutfi projected a video from her 2018 solo When Dreams Call For Silence. The meditative animation depicts identical paper legs marching from side to side to a segment of Vivaldi’s music. In her statement Lutfi “invites viewers to an introspective state” by integrating Sufi methods for transcendence; repetition and listening. But that solo was also a reflection on the cyclical journey between life, death and rebirth, translated as an ongoing procession. And here in the context of a hospital, it raises links between illness, rest, death and revival, and perhaps an invitation to focus on the soul where the body has failed. 

The emotional aspect of this ‘memento mori’ comes up more strongly in the third space, where she placed a wooden bed with a white mattress, and a red leather slipper at its foot with a handwritten inscription in Arabic: ‘Date of death unknown.’

In the Madrassa (school) area of the Qalawun complex, Marwan El-Gamal’s animation plays on a loop in an intimate space of a Khelwa (a hermitage). In the darkroom a vivid circle is projected on one of the walls, evolving and changing its colors to an ambient soundscape.

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

It’s intended as a visualization for the mental-spiritual journey a hermit would take in his small space – transcending the boundaries of the walls. A psychedelic eye, a rippling drop of water, or a portal to another planet, El-Gamal’s dynamic circle inspires numerous interpretations. Its hypnotic rhythm pulls the viewer in, effectively dissolving the surrounding walls.

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

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Muhib Al-Din Hall hosts works from three very diverse women artists, one of which is Heba Y. Amin with her work Windows on the West. Amin presents a large hand-woven textile of the first photograph taken in Africa in 1839, by Horace Vernet.

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Heba Y. Amin, Windows on the West, 2019, Installation: Hand-woven Jacquard Textile, 250cmx135cm (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

The photograph is of Muhammed Ali Pasha’s Harem Palace in Alexandria. Despite only featuring the exterior building with no actual harem in sight, this photo triggered a sensation in Europe, possibly marking the beginning of the orientalist gaze. On a separate stand, there is a slide-scanner to view five mini slides of relevant trigger phrases such as: ‘the invasive gaze’ and ‘mechanics of the colonial imagination’.

Marwan El Gamal, Evasive Eternity, 2019, Projection (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Heba Y. Amin, Windows on the West, 2019, Installation: Hand-woven Jacquard Textile, 250cmx135cm (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Her choice of medium is historically interesting. Although The textile resembles a rug but is reminiscent of tapestries, which were popular in decorating European palaces. Apart from religious and mythological themes, many European tapestries also featured hunting scenes. This gives a darker context to the Vernet quote which Amin references in her statement: “We have been daguerreotyping like lions.” It’s also worth noting that Amin’s piece is just a few steps away from The Egyptian Textile Museum, which traces the history of the craft in Egypt, and the civilizations who have passed through. 

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One of the most exciting works is Ahmed El-Shaer’s Hybrid Spaces and Other Objects;  A sculpture paired with a Virtual Reality experience, displayed at one of Maqaad Mamay Al-Sayfi’s rooms on the ground floor. El-Shaer – possibly the only Egyptian artist using VR –  gives us a virtual interactive trip into the world of late renowned artist Abdelhadi El-Gazzar.

Ahmed El Shaer, Hybrid Spaces and Other Objects, 2019, Interactive virtual reality installation/Object, 180 x 75cm (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Maqaad Mamay was part of a Mamluk palace (demolished in the Fatimid Era), and for many decades served as a courthouse and residence for the judge. Those rooms on the ground floor were assumed to be used as custodial for the court criminals. El-Shaer’s journey to the past resonates even more as Gazzar’s social themes and emphasis on the Egyptian identity were affected by the politics of his time.

Medhat Shafik, The Wise Man's Shop, 2019

In a neighboring room, Medhat Shafik ‘s Itaca is in stark contrast with El-Shaer’s technology-based work. His is an ode to hand-worked art, transforming the cave-like custodial room into a sanctuary. With paintings on white muslin sheets that hang loosely, delicate structures of white sticks line up the walls like shelves carrying muslin sculptures and primitive items, others hanging from threads, this work may not be revolutionary but is quietly immersive, affective, and holds its own.

Medhat Shafik, The Wise Man's Shop, 2019

Mohamed Monaisseer’s larger than life installation is another example of a labor-intensive installation, in an exhibition where many artists are distant from their mediums.

Mohamed Monaiseer, I, the Pet Lion, Installation: Variable dimensions, 2019

Mohamed Monaiseer, I, the Pet Lion (From the Series Taxidermy Dreams), 2019, Installation: variable dimensions (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

His work I, the Pet Lion takes up a room in Bayt El-Suhaimi. Upon entering you are facing the top of an open umbrella embroidered with sequins, with an open eye at its center. It conceals a wooden structure with a red fabric hung over it, and a chess patterned fabric on the floor like a long carpet. Building on his last project Taxidermy Dreams (2018), Monaisseer’s work is imbued in historical tales and folklore, between truth and fantasy. He links ancient wisdom to contemporary consciousness, and in this project references a dream of encountering lions and Ibn Sirin’s book of dream interpretations.

Mohamed Monaiseer, I, the Pet Lion, 2019, Installation: variable dimensions

Mohamed Monaiseer, I, the Pet Lion (From the Series Taxidermy Dreams), 2019, Installation: variable dimensions (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

His installations are not only impressive for the labor, but for triggering questions about the relationships between the elements. Perhaps the umbrella is the veil between conscious life and unconsciousness of dreaming. Maybe peering behind the umbrella is looking into the dream, trying to uncover a truth only to find another riddle.

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Marianne Fahmy, Atlas Series, 2019, Installation: Acrylic sheets, epoxy Resin and Inkjet Film

Marianna Fahmy, Atlas Series, 2019, Installation: Acrylic sheets, epoxy Resin and inkjet Film - Variable dimensions (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Other works worth mentioning include Marianne Fahmy’s installation and video from her Atlas series. Acrylic sheets float suspended from the ceiling in a poetic contrast with the stone walls, invoking water waves as she merges fact and fiction on the history of water in Egypt.

Hany Rashad, Baba Museum (2019),Installation: Mixed Media

Hany Rashed, Baba Museum: Objects between Life and Death, 2019, Installation: Mixed media, 4 x 3m (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Hany Rashed’s Baba Museum is another, where he pays tribute to his late father’s hobby of collecting items of all sorts. The display triggers collective nostalgia but also ways of healing a past as it extends beyond the material. Rashed began the project as a Facebook page before exhibiting his father’s items anywhere. His online ‘Parallel Museum’ invites others to share items of their deceased loved ones.

Sherin Guirguis, El Sokareya, 2012, Plywood Installation

Sherin Guirguis, El Sokareya, 2012, Installation: Plywood, 213.36 x 213.36 x 223.52cm (Photo: Soha El Sirgany)

Sherin Guirguis’ (to read more on Sherin Guirguis' work click here) kinetic plywood sculptures Qasr El Shoaq (2010) and El Sokareya (2012), inspired by Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, are at home in this show. Mahfouz’s novel Bayn El-Qasrain (Between the Two Palaces) was set on this same street (now named El-Moez Street).

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Between the different languages and ways of bridging past and present, challenging or reconciling identities, Reimagined Narratives is an event out of the ordinary for the Egyptian art community. For many of the artists, it’s an opportunity for a different type of exposure and working outside ‘the white cube’. It also encourages local and foreign tourism – its main goal - and shuffles the context and accessibility of these artworks as they are placed amidst El-Moez’ neighborhood of craftsmen, a different audience from Cairo’s usual galleries’ crowd.

A program of talks and lectures featuring local and international artists and guests ran in parallel to the exhibition, expanding the conversations beyond the spaces they occupy. The collateral program also included an art fair held at Tamara Building titled The 29th letter of the Alphabet, featuring five local galleries representing over 40 artists.

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‘Reimagined Narratives: From Spatial Memory to Mapping the Future’ opened on 17 October and runs till 9 November.

The international curatorial board included Alexandra Stock, Arnaud Morand, Bahia Shehab, Ridha Moumni, Rose Issa, and Salma Tuqan.

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