Shiny, happy urban people

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

In a passageway linking Mohamed Bassiouny and Qasr El-Nil streets in Downtown Cairo, you might stumble upon the first exhibit of the multi-disciplinary “Meeting Point 5 festival.

Not that you would notice. The majority of people who passed by the koshk (kiosk) on Monday evening seemed oblivious to the fact that the installation was part of a contemporary art project entitled “Tales Around the Pavement.

Seven designers and architects were commissioned to “subtly disrupt the urban landscape by re-inventing some of the guerrilla-style tactics and survival strategies employed by city dwellers.

The quintessentially Egyptian koshk in this alley has been transformed into a giant present. Imagine substituting the chewing gum, cake and cigarettes for luminescent gift-wrap and it will be close to what you will find.

Add in a thin slot with a small plaque affixed above it reading: “Hand in your wish. Please come back tomorrow in Arabic. Directly to the left of this sign, which is positioned at eye-level so as to be easily legible, there is a square cut out of the side of the koshk. A blue curtain hangs down from the top ledge. A larger sign placed on the bottom of the curtain says: “Come back tomorrow, maybe you will see what you want.

So, it is a wishing well – posting your desire will result in it coming true. Or will it?

While observing the general public’s reaction to the installation, I noticed a distinct lack of interest in it. This may be a reflection of urban life – people think it is often better to keep their head down and mind their own business than to become engaged and involved with one another and their direct environment, even if they perceive something odd or out of place.

A handful of passersby did stop briefly to get a better look. The more daring ventured right up to the installation and tried to put their hand through the curtain. Were they hoping to discover if the shiny exterior was hiding something in it or was it a deliberate act to show a lack of care for authority?

Artist Malak Helmy said the idea behind her work, entitled “How to Make Your Body Double Overnight at Koshk, was the notion of wish fulfilment and dream realization.

“It is part of a longer project – Monday evening was the opening only – that is based on the idea of unofficially taking over this koshk [a piece of public space] and transforming it into different things – a common space in the public domain that different artists can use to voice small ideas, small attempts to acquire a public space, Malak commented.

She intended the exhibit to be interactive, with the public able to be active participants in the evolution of the work. But the paper and pen provided initially were stolen, Malak informed me later.

Helmy explained the exhibit beyond its surface appearance: “The politics of this kiosk are important to take into consideration and this is a part of the project in itself.

“The kiosk was unofficially set up by a tenant a few years ago to sell cigarettes. It was then closed by the baladia [governorate police] and is not allowed to be used because there is no license.

Malak convinced the man in the adjacent building, who is responsible for the koshk, that she could use the space, since it had already been the site of many posters.

“Setting up the wishing booth was like sticking a big poster up. The other projects to come are also pushing that line of how much you can unofficially do to a space like this in 24 hours, Malak said.

Having installations in public spaces, as opposed to stored away in museums that many locals would be unlikely to ever visit, is an effective way to reach out to ordinary people going about their daily lives.

The concept of the bringing some temporary respite from the hustle and bustle of the Egyptian capital was successful to an extent. At least in the immediate area surrounding the exhibit.

One group of men walked right past it but as they were on the verge of exiting the alley, one of them pointed it out to the others. An intent conversation and much finger-wagging later, the men dispersed, deciding that the installation did not warrant a closer look.

To round-off my journey to the koshk, I walked the length of Talaat Harb street before descending into the metro station – a sharp reminder that you are sharing the biggest metropolis in Africa with approximately 17 million others. At times like this you feel like half of the city’s population is riding the metro with you (in your carriage to be precise). Here, guerrilla-style tactics were clearly in evidence.

“Meeting Points is being run simultaneously in several cities across the Middle East and Europe from Nov. 5 to 15. Damascus, Beirut, Amman Ramallah, Rabat, Tunis, Berlin and Brussels are all taking part alongside Alexandria and Minya in Egypt. For details on each city’s program, please see: Refer to the agenda for Egypt’s schedule.

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