A journey from “somewhere else” to “somewhere inbetween” via Egypt, Notes from a lecture by Yasmin Canvin - Egypt

I am going to focus my presentation around a recent research trip I made with other curators to Cairo, which was organised by Camilla Cannellas, for ArtProjects, and the follow up conference we organised in London called Khamseen (Sandstorm in Arabic), to explore moments of connection between cultures.

Cairo had been selected because there is an active dialogue taking place in Egypt between the past and the present, and between traditional and contemporary practices.

Geography is not a strong point, and it wasn't until I visited Cairo, that I became fully aware of where Egypt is situated ?we are familiar with describing it as part of Africa, and bordering Asia, yet it is also located on the Mediterranean Sea.

Over the centuries, parts of Egypt have been conquered many times, by different empires - included the Phaoronic, Persian, Grecian, Roman, Arabian, Ottoman, French and finally the British empire. It only achieved independence in 1922.

As you know, the conquered nation will take on the language and culture of the conquering empire, as a result, throughout Egypt's history, the people have been told they are not Pharaonic, not Arabic, not Islamico

This has led to difficult discussions around personal identity, representation, and created notions such as "which tradition is more justified". This has not allowed for an "inbetweeness of cultures, eg to be an Egyptian you have to wear a jellebah".

However, this inbetweeness has always existed, although it is often hidden. eg veils were used in Pharaonic times to protect women's hair from the sand and dust, long before they were used as a religious symbol.

Although Egypt is referred to as an Islamic country in Europe, and that religion exercises a strong influence over Egypt's laws and social life, there are strong links to Egypt's other cultural heritage to be found everywhere.

Image of stone

Note the hieroglyphics on this stone ?yet this threshold is not in an ancient pharaonic building, rather "pilfered" from an archeological site and utilised in modern one. Very common

Contemporary artists investigate cultural identity through their practice and initially this concerned the government. It was perceived that the artists were destroying this rigid idea of Egyptian identity and as a result these artists were not shown in the main galleries. The Townhouse Gallery was set up to enable these artists to develop and exhibit this kind of practice. Many of these artists have subsequently gained an international profile and the government are now changing their attitude towards the artists.

Khaled Hafez

One of these artists is Khaled Hafez, who uses his background as a resource and mines this amazingly interwoven international cultural history. His work draws on contemporary and historical figures from Egypt, France and the United States, as he makes comparisons between Batman, bodybuilders and Anubis.

Hafez uses figures such as Batman or Catwoman to evoke the ancient gods of Egypt and Greece, demonstrating the persistence of certain cultural archetypes through today.

Specifically, Hafez ruminates on the position of painting within Pharonic culture--with its serial imagery, "superhero" figures and clear moral narratives--as a precursor to today's comics. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were "film strips" reporting the tales of the nation's aristocracy.

Marilu Knode, Arizona State University

According to Hafez, Anubis would be depicted as a bodybuilder today, both aim to obtain the perfect body and become powerful.

He also draws comparisons between Batman and Anubis' function of

"protection against evil forces"

and he comments on the coincidence that the sculptures of Anubis and Warner Brothers' model of Batman appear the same from the front and back view, just differing in profile. In addition, both

"superheroes have the mask of an animal and the musculature of a perfect man".

There are further similarities in the way that ancient Egyptian painting was very two-dimensional, since the friezes were intended to portray a narrative above aesthetical concerns ?which similar to the origin of comic strips.

Image of Building

One of the most interesting people we met on the trip was Dr Amr Abdel Kawi - architect and editor of Magaz art and design magazine ?commented that Egypt's history has also resulted in a truly international architecture, from the pyramids to neo-classical, Islamic, modern to post-modernŠ

But when he returned to Egypt after his training he found very little that represented

"a sense of a contemporary Egyptian design"

and decided he would initiate a project to

"excavate into the future".

He talked about attempting to create ripples, which have a local impact ?but how to find the right pebble? He saw there was a huge gap between the academic and industrial worlds, so his pebble became building links between designers and industry, through running courses and workshops, publishing, research, training, design competitions and incubation, which has resulted in a shift in design practice.

According to Dr Kawi

"the power of the individual is in their ability to ask the right questions, at the right time in the right place, that encourage others to respond"

When we travel, we are always asking questions of ourselves

- How does this relate to what I know?

- How does it make me feel and why?

One of the other members of the group to Cairo, had visited it with a group of gallery directors, who were only interested in seeing art and artists. This colleague commented that she felt they had lost out on a more rounded cultural experience through including craft, design and architecture, and a deeper understanding of the other cultural and historical ideas informing the contemporary artistic practices.

I often find I respond to something I see without knowing why until I make another connection.

(Image of James Turrell)

This is an image looking up from within Turrell's use of the old Deer Shelter at YSP

I never knew why I didn't respond to this particular piece until I went to Egypt.

(Close up under Cairo building)

As you can see, it has a very similar effect during the day ?but this architectural feature is designed to maintain air flow throughout the building ?the Turrell piece felt too functional. It framed the sky, but did not change my perception of where I was underneath it or change my view of the sky.

For me, a much more successful piece can be found at Kielder Skyspace

Maha Mamoun

Before the trip to Egypt, I spent some time researching Egyptian artists, and came across images of Maha Mamoun's Cairoscapes. The description with the work discussed Mamoun's depiction of women's traditional floral fabrics against manmade structures, which is particularly significant in a city like Cairo, with 14 million inhabitants and very little space for greenery.

However, when we visited Cairo, we saw how one of the buildings she featured dominates part of the city.

The Mogamma building houses the Egyptian Ministry of Interior

"Mogamma" means complex in Arabic.

It was built in the 1940s as a sign of modernity, but it now symbolises Egypt's impenetrable bureaucracy ?apparently you can spend a whole day there trying to obtain a visa.

The Square in front, also resonates strongly with Egyptians as it has been a site for many peaceful political protests.

As a result of this broader understanding regarding the context, the photographs reveal additional layers of meaning, regarding social issues, such as women's place in Egyptian society.

Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum is another artist who was invited for a residency at the Townhouse Gallery says she dislikes interviews because she is often asked the same question:

What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness...

When asked if:

?hose kinds of questions have made her overly self-conscious about how she represents herself and its effect on the work?

Hartoum said:

?f you come from an embattled background there is often an expectation that your work should somehow articulate the struggle or represent the voice of the people.

I grew up in Beirut in a Palestinian family that had suffered a tremendous loss - becoming exiles in Lebanon after 1948 - and existed with a sense of dislocation. When I went to London in 1975 forŠa brief visit, I got stranded there because the war broke out in Lebanon, and that created another kind of dislocation. How that manifests itself in my work is as a sense of disjunction.

One of the many strategies that Hatoum employs, is reworking emblems that the West associates with the Arabic world. eg, this kinetic work Misbah, which was originally created in 2006 for an exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

The title means ?antern' in Arabic and examples of brass lanterns cut to produce abstract patterns on the walls and ceiling can be seen throughout Cairo. However in Hatoum's piece, the lantern rotates and the cut outs show soldiers brandishing guns and pursuing one another in a constant circle. The work draws on and subverts Hatoum's childhood memories of the lanterns used during Ramadan celebrations, acting as metaphors for lost innocence. The constant rotation of the images of the soldiers without any change also acts as a metaphor for the futility of war.

(Example of Screen)

Susan Hefuna

Susan Hefuna creates woodwork screens based on the wooden screens used in Egypt as windows and room dividers


Her screens act in a similar way, in that they separate, but also filter and join viewers sharing a space. In addition to the references to architectural artefacts, the work has other layers of meanings. Hefuna lives and works between Cairo and Germany and she uses both English and Arabic text in the panels, sometimes together, sometimes individually. According to the artist, her

"?creens act differently depending on who is reading them and in which cultural contextŠEach observer reads each work differently depending on their knowledge and depth of understanding."

However, Hefuna describes her structures as Mashrabia. This is a problem for those who have researched the original architectural structures. Apparently, Mashrabia is not a general term for the wooden screens, but refers specifically to the screens constructed for cooling water jars.


This image shows the modern version ?which we have found to be less effective and more destructive in the long term!

Shaira Hehrez speaks about an alienation from cultural history, but at the same time, culture will not develop if it is frozen in aspic. It needs other influences and ideas to move forward and continue to be relevant. This is what Dr Kawi and the Townhouse Gallery are attempting to ensure. However, there is also a danger of turning a beautiful craft with a spatial concept into a pastiche. The cut outs were designed to refract the light to cool the rooms and create patterns on the surroundings.

Townhouse Gallery

The gallery is situated on the junction of two working "lanes" that re-define the term lively: activity spills out into the streets 24 hours a day from coffee and Koshary shops, glassmakers, carpenters, welders, sign painters, car mechanics, bread-sellers

William Wells talks about socially engaged practice, but he defines this as from the street to the art, whereas we tend to move from the art to the street.

When the gallery was about to open, he approached everyone working in the lanes and brought them together to discuss what they needed to improve their working life. The response came that the electric service was unreliable. Wells then negotiated wit the companies on their collective behalf. This kind of relationship has continued.

One of the prospective gallery spaces had been used by the lane workers as a prayer room, Wells agreed that they would work round this and it is still used by the workers today at prayer time.

Wells talks about cultural exchange and giving people a voice ?and in this case it is their own voice, not one mediated through an artist.

The gallery employs the people working in the lanes to do all the work on the gallery ?they refurbished it, install the exhibitions and make anything required for the display of work. Some of them also act as security during the night. Wells wondered why Ayman Ramadan kept going missing from his post on security - it turned out he was talking to the artists on residence most evenings. This curiosity led him to propose work for his own show, which as accepted and he now exhibits internationally.

In 2006, The TG was asked to take part in an exhibition at the New Museum in New York, with galleries from Seoul, Mexico City and Eindhoven, exploring national identity. However after several long discussions, the group of Directors decided that Neighbourhood would be a much more appropriate term to use to reflect their approach.

The text for the resulting exhibition of work by artists from Egypt describes the ongoing dialogue between people and place

"The concept of neighborhood in Cairo stretches far beyond a simple geographical designation on the city map. Cairo's neighborhoods are urban structures that have incorporated the specific characteristics of their inhabitants in their identities. Nestled in the heart of downtown Cairo, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art shares its most immediate surroundings with the neglected nineteenth-century Said Halim's Palace, numerous car mechanics' garages, coffee shops, greengrocers, and carpenters. Downtown Cairo amalgamates architectural patterns of various eras, modifying and sometimes obscuring their original characteristics. Despite the urban disorder, this incongruity of styles and histories pave the way for an unusual and intriguing mixture of identity. Throughout the years, this neighborhood called Antikhana has experienced a symbiotic coexistence between artists, writers, intellectuals, and conservative male workers from the "lanes," the streets surrounding the Townhouse Gallery.

In their works, artists Susan Hefuna, Ayman Ramadan and Tarek Zaki capture this fusion of different historical eras, architectures, and inhabitants by using physical objects and the actual surroundings of the neighborhood. They integrate individuals, research different aspects of the social structure, and reload the trivial situations of everyday life with deeper meanings. The artists look at the neighborhood as a symbol, a microcosm of Egyptian society with its inherent contradictions. They act consciously as mediators between the obvious and subliminal perceptions of more profound social meanings."

Vitrines of Afaf

This was the piece made by Hefuna during her residency at the TG in 2007 and shown at exhibition at the New Museum.

As you know, the lanes surrounding the TG are full of mechanics and other workers, however their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives never visit the lanes. Hefuna visited these women in their homes in the suburbs of Cairo and collected objects from then that held a hidden story about a life, a relationship or a memory and displayed them in a similar glass case to those seen throughout Cairo, on street corners selling food. As a result, these vitrines collect and reveal the dreams and fantasies of all these anonymous women - the name Afaf is given to women whose names are kept unknown in public, in a manner that suggests to protect them in the traditional Egyptian culture.

The contents include a row of spent lighters, a tin drinking cup, plastic game coins, fabric roses, a Mickey Mouse ashtray, glittered cards, a collection of hair brushes, as well as handmade toys and dolls. In Vitrines, Hefuna brings the intimacy of the female household into the public eye of the male.

The first images shows the Vitrines as they were originally displayed in the lanes near to the gallery, and the second image shows them on display in the New Museum, NY

I will conclude with a quote from curator Catherine David:

"The effects of globalisation of the market are no doubt changing certain parts of the art scene for the better by raising the profiles of certain artists in their own societies as a result of their arrival on the international stage. However, they are also changing the scene for the worse by systematically favoring certain forms of formal expression ?"recipes" ?that can be immediately assimilated by a global art scene and market, to the detriment of more complicated and idiosyncratic expressions of original cultures and societies, which get "lost in translation" as it were."

Cultural difference tends to be discussed in relation to globalisation, broad national or ethnic groupings rather than through much more complex and subtle individual identities and local situations, which can often be explored through the unique personal histories, narratives and experiences contained within individual artist's work. As I think we are attempting to do today. Through this kind of dialogue between artists, galleries and audiences we can find moments of connection, rather than always highlighting only differences.

These are the notes that were delivered as a talk by Yasmin Canvin, as part of an event at the Hub: Centre for Craft and Design on 1st Feb 2010.