Walking down most Cairo streets, you’re likely to find a bicycle transformed into a vehicle for picking up junk, a shop made of sheet wood and vegetable crates or a group of children playing football with a plastic soda bottle.
Cairo is a city that’s constantly making do with what it has, a city in constant flux. Decades of overpopulation, poor structural planning and tough economic conditions for most of its inhabitants mean that, for better or for worse, it is full of physical manifestations of everyday design creativity.
During a four-month residency program at Townhouse gallery in 2015, Dutch artist Joran Koster —who had created Converted Bicycles, documenting repurposed bikes in India, the previous year — closely followed these street design solutions. Limiting his search to Townhouse’s neighborhood, which has socio-economic diversity and many craftspeople, he found several gems.
He says he wanted to recognize creativity and point out that “chaos can allow for freedom.”
This resulted in a Cairo Contemporary Hack Map, both a physical and online document of what the artist calls Egypt’s “hacking culture.” Images and explanations of hacks were accompanied by a map locating them between Talaat Harb, Mahmoud Bassiouny and Champollion streets.
They included innovative items, such as a stone hanging from a tree to stabilize stacked potato-chip boxes at a kiosk, a motorcycle with two side-seats added and tires used in parking reservation systems. Koster also included items that Egyptian artists have created entire projects around.
One such example is from architect and designer Manar Morsi of Studio Meem, who, with David Puig, a Dominican diplomat, translator and publisher, has been documenting the infinite variety of cobbled-together street chairs on 1001 Chairs of Cairo, which has also produced a map since 2010.
That project and the resulting book, Sidewalk Salon (2015) explore Cairo’s urban dynamics through an “apparently banal object” and draw attention to “creative practices of design that occur everyday on the sidewalk and document unplanned interventions in the public space that gives Cairo its distinctive character.”
Another example is an ongoing photography project around colorfully, individually painted balconies that was launched in 2003 by artist Rana El-Nemr, who was also involved in helping select images for Sidewalk Salon. Nemr is known for making photographs of abnormalities in urban Egypt, detached from their surrounding context.
Egyptian artist Ahmed Badry has also long been exploring “hacked” objects in his practice.
At Medrar in 2014, Badry exhibited The Provisionary that Lasts, mixing large-scale, monochrome sculptures and prints of objects, such as a basketball hoop made out of a toilet seat, an iron used as an electric hob to make coffee, a desk fan taped upside down to a ceiling, a clothes hanger with light bulbs as a chandelier and a broken clock with the missing piece hand drawn on the wall.
As part of the same project in 2016, he showed one large-scale white sculpture at a downtown Cairo shop front as part of Sounds As If exhibition curated by Aleya Hamza within the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival. A toilet larger than a human that appeared to be transformed into a water basin, it was both conceptually and aesthetically playful.
Some of Badry’s objects are observed in Egypt, some abroad and some on the internet. The project started when he spent time in Europe and stopped seeing these makeshift solutions. It’s the approach itself that attracts Badry: repurposing objects and reshaping our understanding of them. Some recreated objects served a new use, while others, he found, had become useless.
“This approach challenges the universal order — the system of production,” Badry says.
Another layer to challenge this order is created by Badry himself in his artworks, by using cardboard to create large-scale sculptures of these found images and observations, a material that’s not long-lasting or resilient enough to carry out the functions of the objects it’s used to mimic.
For Badry, a fine line separates makeshift solutions, art and “up-cycled” design. “It is the institution that decides what’s art and what’s design,” he says, adding that museums, galleries, critics and writers are at the core of this institution. “I see these works as resembling art to a large extent. But the person who made them at home wouldn’t have called them art.”
“The person who makes these objects thinks of their life in the same way – living temporarily, thinking temporarily,” he says. “This thought approach creates a different approach to one’s life, to everything.”