“My favorite things” is the title of an interesting group exhibition by female artists from Egypt and Germany. The exhibition, currently on show at the Mashrabiya Gallery downtown, includes paintings, collages and installations expressing different views of the artists’ intimate worlds.
Oil paintings and collages featuring an architectural view of different parts of Cairo by Gabriela Kobus captured my attention at once. Kobus finished her interdisciplinary studies of design and art at the Faculty of Design at Pforzheim University, Germany. After graduating she moved to Berlin where she worked as a freelance head of design for international brands. In 2010 she decided to quit the fashion business and moved to Leipzig where she now lives and works as a visual artist.
“The fashion field was a very interesting domain, of course, but I wanted to do art. Fashion is about the clothes you wear, the layer, which protects you as a human being. Architecture, houses and buildings in general play a similar role: another layer that holds humans within. They protect us from the outer environment,“ she told me. “My art, however, is usually empty of human elements. I want to show my vision of art from an architectural perspective. I am fascinated with the architecture of mega cities like Cairo, and Shanghai.”
Kobus developed a great passion for Cairo even before visiting it. This is her second visit. Her first took place in March, when she came at her own expense to explore the city. She was back to Cairo in early September as she was invited for a two-week residency funded by the Out of the Circle foundation in Cairo and IFA, the German Institute of Foreign Cultural Connections in Germany. The paintings and collages on show are a reflection of her perception of Cairo after her first visit.
A black and white silkscreen print entitled All in One and dating back to 2017 features a juxtaposed abstract composition of pictures of cities and settlements from all over the world, Rome, Lagos, Cairo and others. Another collage of pictures from different places in Cairo is equally amazing. Huge buildings, air conditioning pumps, bridges and road signs inscribed in Arabic, and above all that the dome of a mosque, all juxtaposed in harmony, reflect the chaotic mega city.
A fascinating oil painting features a bird’s eye view of the roofs of intersecting buildings, which in this monochrome abstract composition look like an intimate gathering of neighbours in a shanty town. Although cold colours are used, they convey warmth. Another, huge oil painting on cardboard is entitled The Tower.
“I am fascinated with towers. I believe people build towers to have a higher perspective on their surroundings. During my September days, I visited the city of the dead, beside Magra Al-Uyoun, and different areas in Giza and New Cairo, a very well planned area which is completely the opposite in its present state. I find myself fascinated with the narrow alleyways and shanty town, buildings that grow out of nowhere, and how people manage their lives in such limited spaces among Cairo’s diversity of architectural styles. I have been to almost every place in the city either on foot or by car. I wonder how such settlements developed. I see it like an organic growth, as they are not planned according to an organised architectural plan. I grew up in a small and quiet city, as is the case with most cities in Germany. However, I discovered my love of big cities when I had my internship in Paris before graduation…”
So, you are more into the anthropological aspect of art?
“Yes, it is amazing to see the growing mechanism of other cities. In my paintings, I try to show my perception of cities in an abstract way. I read a lot about the cities’ development and history, I subscribe to special magazines on ecology and environmental issues, but when it comes to art, I prefer the language of architecture alone. I eliminate all other elements.” But what excites Kobus about Egypt is its people. “I met a lot of artists from different backgrounds. I like their mentality and the richness of the art scene. Contrary to the art scene in Cairo, digital art is more prevalent in Germany than paintings and sculptures. We have this traditional tendency and classic style of teaching art, but the experimental way of studying at art institutions is more prevalent. Artists should not have to study the classics if they are not interested in painting portraits or landscapes.”
For her residency project in Cairo, Kobus invented a kind of paper recording. She roams the streets in a car, with a driver who takes her wherever she wants to look, and all the while she has a long roll of paper on which she is drawing sketches. “This a is very exciting, exhausting and intuitive artistic process with the scene changing every minute,“ she said smiling. “I am planning to come back next year to exhibit this new project.”
Kobus gave her fourth exhibition at the central Lindenow art festival in Leipzig west on 4 October. The exhibition is entitled “Category Boards”, a series launched in 2017, and includes for the first time human silhouettes in wooden panels representing people from different local and social backgrounds, accompanied by a pencil drawing on one wall. The category boards, which are reminiscent of display or teaching boards, pretend to show significant external features such as posture, clothing and status symbols. Kobus is planning for a group exhibition in Leipzig featuring 16 artists and a curatorial team from Germany and Egypt in April 2020 .
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.