Chairs are everywhere on the streets of Cairo. We all pass by at least one every day, and most of us march right past them without even noticing the car seat that has been converted into a street chair and placed on the sidewalk or the hard wooden chair, carefully covered with a pillow to make it more comfortable.
The chairs tend to get lost in the middle of all the spontaneity, improvisation and confusion on our streets. Until a project called 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo, which “aims to create a photographic archive” of Cairo’s street chairs, was launched. So far, the pictures of 353 street chairs have been published. The picture of the chair is pinned on a map of the capital, showing a small icon of a chair on the location in which the picture was taken.
Manar Moursi, a co-founder of the project, said the idea came to her after she worked on a project on public spaces in Beirut. The project focused on the white plastic chairs and how they are creators of public spaces, being very light and portable.
As you scroll through the pictures of 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo you cannot help but wonder, how many chairs have I missed today? There are pictures of a row of waiting chairs like the ones seen in hospitals, desk chairs, bamboo chairs, chairs of which the backs have fallen off, armchairs and even couches and all sorts of chairs covered with pillows.
Some of the chairs are ragged and worn down, while others are makeshift contraptions, made up of one chair’s legs, another’s cushion and a third chairs’ back. Some are still intact but others look distorted nearly beyond recognition.
Moursi said the chairs reflect more than just the design and cost factors, creativity and recycling: “People do not throw them away, they fix them.” She added that the chairs also reflect public space issues, gender issues (because only men sit in them) and even unemployment issues. As she takes the pictures, she notices how some people sit for hours observing their surroundings, how some neighbourhoods have more chairs than others and even the paternalistic view of the bawab sitting on his chair outside his building.
The project describes itself as one that “documents unplanned interventions in the public space that gives Cairo its distinctive character.” Moursi, who has a background in product design and architecture, uses a Polaroid camera to take the pictures “because it allows an exchange with the owners of the chairs,” she said, “but it is a very expensive way of documentation.”
While Moursi has taken most of the pictures of the chairs, the project is open to submissions and a lot of people have contributed.
There is more to 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo than taking pictures and pinning them on a map; Moursi also interviews the chair owners. The project also caters to fiction writers who can use their imagination to write based on the images; for example about the life of the owner of the chair.
Moursi is currently working on publishing the interviews and fiction in a book and is trying to secure funding to build a website for the project which is already supported by grants from the British Council Grant for Artists and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.
One of the things that makes 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo interesting is that with a camera and a simple idea, the project brings attention not only to an often unnoticed and overlooked object on our streets, but also to how much of our society is reflected in these chairs.