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Wednesday, 27 March 2019

From Rags to Riches: up-cycled materials to become art in Cairo's public spaces

Curated by Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art, From Rags to Riches aims to create a different framework of city beautification, shedding light on a close relation with the community which it serves

Nahed Nasr, Monday 30 May 2016
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Artists explore the recycled materials during a workshop at Mashrabia Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia)
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From Rags to Riches (FRTR) is a pilot project that is wholly devoted to up-cycled public art in Cairo.

Working within the framework of city beautification, FRTR is initiated by Baad El Bahr for Cultural Development BEBA, curated by Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art and funded by the embassies of Switzerland, Netherlands, Spain, and the Italian Cultural Institute in Cairo.

As the project aims to involve the artists in the process, they were asked to submit their proposals of how they picture the city’s beautification in relation to specific spaces, their physical, historical and cultural environment. The core material used in the projects comes from recycled objects. The shortlisted works will be announced within coming days.

Ahram Online met with Stefania Angarano, director of Mashrabia Gallery and the curator of the project, to discuss FRTR’s ideology, methodology, and the potential implementation logistics.

Ahram Online (AO): From Rags to Riches (FRTR) is devoted to up-cycled public art in Cairo. Why public art? 

Stefania Angarano (SA): The idea came to my mind after the 2011 revolution. I have been living in Egypt for a very long, but it was the first time I felt that people started to have a consciousness about the city, approaching it as their space. They started to clean the streets and to paint the pavements. A new kind of interest in the public space emerged. I wanted to capitalise on this phenomenon.

On the other hand, many cities in Egypt and many internationally, have this chaotic look, one that lacks any concrete shape or structure. There is no planning of streets, gardens, squares, public spaces, and so on. Cities become a collection of cement blocks. They lack the aspects that would make them human.

All this needs revamping in the way of thinking. FRTR does not have all the solutions but it is important to show the context.

AO: When you say city beautification, what kind of beautification do you refer to?

SA: The concept of city beautification is not presented as clear as it should be in all the previous projects implemented by the government or by individuals. It is also a very vague concept. Is beautification an idea of repainting the old buildings? Is it about placing a sculpture in the middle of a square?

City beautification as a concept needs a strategy and understanding of why we add this or demolish that, and what does that mean to the given space and to local communities.

Our project deals with the concept itself. It deals with how through art people could be more connected to the place, with an art that really suits the place. City beautification is not about filling the vacuum of a given space. It should be deeper than this.

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Artists explore the recycled materials during a workshop at Mashrabia Art Gallery (Photo: courtesy of Mashrabia)

AO: How is FRTR different to other projects that aim at beautifying the city?

SA: There are many beautification projects in the city and they all reflect a desire for a better and more beautiful life. In FRTR, however, we give focus to the ideas which are based on research and studies.

Our project is trying to introduce creative relationships with people and with the place. Today, art has a different role: it can shed light on an idea, it can be a landmark, it can be interactive and/or functional. There are many different uses of art in public spaces, but there are no serious attempts in Egypt to look beyond the old fashioned methodologies such as placing statues of notable figures in public squares and so on.

We introduced our understanding of the project through a series of lectures and workshops we held in previous months. Then we did a call for proposals which was open to artists, architects, designers, and art students. No previous experience was required.

AO: Why did you chose to use the recycled materials in this project?

SA: We hoped to see a different kind of beauty that is not revolving around bronze granite, marbles, rocks, and all other traditional and costy materials. Those don’t talk to people and do not play a role in their everyday life.

Instead we can look into materials that have a very low cost even if their life is shorter. This is where we aim to look at the garbage or rather material which can be recycled, up-cycled: the colourful pipes, metals, wood. This is a different kind of beauty that can help us think in a different way.

AO: Do the proposals you received reflect the concept of the project?

SA: In fact the concept is not clear in most of the proposals. There are very good ideas but they lack daring. Even though we made it clear that we are providing the selected artists with the materials, still there is no sense of the space as a vacuum, as a possibility for you to fill. We still need to have discussions with the selected participants to further develop and to improve their projects. I need to add that the architects’ proposals were the best: they are more practical and have sense of the place.

AO: What is the ideal project proposals that you expected to have?

SA: The ideal proposal should be based on a study of the place. For example, a historical study to restore an old scent of the past or to deal with nostalgic items. It should include study of the unique character of the place, the dwellers, life dynamics that surround it, etc. The project should reflect all of these concerns and also to have the local community as participants in the project whenever it is applicable.

AO: The shortlisted proposals will be revealed on 4 June. What is the next phase?

SA: The next step is to work on the prototypes which should be received by September. At the end of December, we will hold a public exhibition of those prototypes. It is important to have all the pieces in one place to get the point.

Meanwhile we will work on the permissions and the documentation phase. Governmental figures, privet constructing companies, and foreign embassies will be invited to the exhibition to see the concept of the project in a concrete shape.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Mashrabia)


AO: Do you have any governmental partner in the first phases of the project?

SA: We discussed the issue with the authority of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony, and some other governmental parties. For sure, such a project cannot succeed without governmental involvement.

In the next phases we will set several meetings with governmental representatives to discuss the implementation. We also expect to attract the private sector working in the construction field. Some foreign institutes and embassies already offered their participation, offering their spaces for example.

We already have some confirmed places and at the same time we are trying to get more locations, public or semi-public. Our list will be updated constantly as soon as the locations become available. But the participants are highly encouraged to choose a public space that they will feel comfortable working in. The only condition is that the project is suitable for the location chosen and the community interacting in that area.

AO: Volunteers play an important role in all the project phases. How can people give a hand?

SA: We have volunteers in every step, and we expect volunteers to work with the artists in the prototypes phase. At the project website there are all the details regarding calls for volunteers. I expect art students to benefit the most, since they will have an opportunity to work with artists and get involved in practical experiences.

AO: What are your long-term expectations regarding this project?

SA: We want to continue with more workshops, hoping to attract more participants next year. I want also to expand the mandate of the project to reach other governorates, spaces outside Cairo.

We are aware that the project has some challenges. I am sure it is a difficult time in terms of security concerns, but we are all working under the same circumstances.

Also, the idea of digging into garbage as a material for up-cycling can create difficulties, because the governmental parties do not like to show the unpleasant part of their country. However, if we could show them beautiful prototypes that involve recycled materials, everything can become possible. What we need is to remind people with the value of art in their everyday life.

This project could be a drop in the ocean but even the very small drops could make a difference in the way people look at their life. Art adds joy to life, and in public spaces it gives a chance for people to enjoy it for free. I am very enthusiastic and optimistic.

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