By Tom Dale
“Ard El-Lewa no good” asserts my taxi driver grumpily, as I give him directions to the gallery. “Bad area.”
In fact, there is nothing bad about it, though no doubt life is harder for those who live in its overcrowded apartments than for residents of upscale Maadi or Zamalek. Informal concrete housing crams around narrow streets rutted from rain and tuk-tuk traffic, but it’s welcoming enough.
My driver’s warnings are no more worth listening to than those you hear about equivalent districts in any capital city on the planet. On closer inspection, the area turns out not to be “bad,” but poor.
Artellewa, two small rooms which open onto one such narrow street, is 30 minutes and a world away from the slick Downtown Cairo gallery scene. Hamdy Reda, its founder, and a community of like-minded artists have nurtured the community gallery since its opening in 2007, but this is his first exhibit there.
“Displaced” is a simple but sensitive installation. Six of Reda’s photographs are printed across cubic blocks about half a meter wide, which can be stacked or laid-out in any combination by visitors to the space. During my visit, that mostly meant local children, who happily arranged and rearranged them. Sometimes they worked together, heaving and hauling the blocks to display a complete photograph in the same arrangement as it was captured. At other times, facets showing portions of different pictures would be placed on view; fragments of images, jostling and jarring with each other.
The original six photographs were carefully chosen by Reda from his portfolio to reflect different aspects of Egyptian society in transformation. One appears to show Tahrir Square at night, with clusters of burning tents and two Central Security Force officers standing amidst the wreckage. There’s a wide view of Cairo’s dense and dusty concrete tenements; and workmen abseiling to clean a smart airport sign reading “Arrivals” in letters a meter tall.
In a fourth, we see Caucasian families playing in the shallows of a summer sea. The final two are views from within Ard El-Lewa itself: empty chairs at Reda’s favorite cafe, and a night view from his kitchen window, overlooking a car park.
“What I seek in my work is questions, not answers,” Reda tells me. That’s a familiar enough sentiment; and often it’s an excuse for artists not to think too hard about the work themselves, or to pose questions that are uninteresting or poorly phrased.
Egypt’s present, and Reda’s images, contains enough complexity to compel provocative and important questions; and ones which rise, in most cases, directly from the images rather than from a meaning which would be inaccessible to the viewer were it not for an accompanying written commentary.
By their nature, the images do not each have a single fixed meaning. So the questions raised by the work will vary from person to person. But they are not just any questions; they are questions about the troubled present of Egypt and Ard El-Lewa, and its relation to the wider world. Political life and private life are here; but the choice of images feels more personal than comprehensive. It would not be possible to give a nod to every aspect of life in modern Egypt, and to try would inevitably result in a more mechanical and less interesting combination of meanings.
Artellewa was deliberately conceived as a space through which a popular engagement with art can take place. In the case of this installation, not only is the piece itself interactive, but there are materials available for visitors to make their own miniature version out of folded cards.
For Reda, it’s about cheap, accessible art reproduction: not just bringing new people into gallery spaces, but finding ways for the art to find its way into homes and workplaces. In that sense, Reda sits alongside the more frequently celebrated graffiti artists of the revolution as a maker of images meant for the masses. But in his case, it’s not just mass consumption, but mass participation.
Watching that interaction taking place, visitors arranging and rearranging the blocks, was my favorite aspect of the exhibition. Much of the time, the impulse was to put together a single image like a puzzle; to search for a form of order amidst the multi-faceted chaos. We all do that, in one way or another: search for overarching conceptions which help us grasp the complexity of the world in general and of Egypt in particular.
That impulse is necessary, and insofar as the piece allows and respects that impulse, without being limited by it, it moves beyond the shallow sort of post-modernism which disdains even the search for a representative picture of things.
Reda has made a simple work which allows formulations of chaos, but also of coherence, and which will pass in between the two thousands of times in the next fortnight in the hands of Ard El-Lewa’s residents.
At the most basic level, it’s a reminder to look beneath the surface of our received impressions; for every view and aspect of the world obscures and relies on others. We need our own perspective, but we need to be reminded of those of others too; and our world view becomes the richer for it, and less fearful. In short, if your taxi driver is anything like mine, encourage him to come along too.
“Displaced” is showing at Artellewa: 19 Mohamed Ali Al-Eseary St., Ard El-Lewa, Giza. Tel: 018 810 8880. Open daily from 5-10 pm, except Saturdays. Show closes February 27.
Artist Youssef Lemoud visiting the gallery and interacting with Reda’s work.
Visitors are invited to arrange and rearrange the blocks in this interactive installation.