Cairo Now lights up Dubai Design Week as Iconic City

Soha Elsirgany from Dubai , Saturday 29 Oct 2016

The highly successful Cairo Now: City Incomplete! will continue to be showcased for one more month, even after the closing of Dubai Design Week, the largest annual design event in the Middle East

Cairo Now: City Incomplete! display at Dubai Design Week in Dubai Design District (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Visible through the glass facade, the warm festive string lights attract viewers into Cairo Now: City Incomplete!, where a slice of Cairo’s design scene is showcased at Dubai Design Week (DDW), the largest annual design event in the Middle East running between 24 and 29 October.

As the official closing date approached, it was announced that the exhibition would be extended for an additional month, a definite testimony to the exhibition’s success.

A total of 65 Egyptian innovators across the fields of product design, furniture design, graphic design, typography and architecture, are displayed in a 180 meter space, so that visitors get an intense immersion of what Cairo’s creatives are up to.

Although the exhibitors didn’t all know each other, their works share some undercurrent, some language that works harmoniously in the space to make a cohesive display from a previously scattered group.

Throughout the show, the dazzling hall hosted a steady flow of Design Week attendees, who ranged from the casual viewers skimming through to attentive design enthusiasts pausing patiently at the different projects, and the occasional school trip of youngsters.

Perhaps in the modern world, an abundance of smart phones poised for photo-taking is another testimony of success, the digital age’s way of interaction. It’s celebratory, it’s colourful, it’s diverse and cohesive, it’s down to earth and upbeat with energy, and it’s a lot, but it all works.

Cairo Now in Dubai

Ahram Online attended DDW, and spoke with the curators, designers and attendees at Cairo Now: City Incomplete! this year’s Iconic City focus at the heart of this major design event.

The exhibit is an opportunity to look at Cairo’s budding design initiatives in context, their relationship with the city and their surroundings, and what they make of the resources available to them. Because these designers have no means of connecting, they have previously operated solo, in the vacuum of the city, some only based online or through social media.

“The big advantage of this exhibition on such a massive scale is that by being given a task to complete I found and gathered all these projects, so by having them all in one place we can see their potential and notice trends,” Elshahed told Ahram Online.

The space presented quite a challenge, and the amount of works that were fitted might feel overwhelming.

“I think this volume is important; it’s the first time for an event like this to happen, a truly comprehensive international design event that gathers Egyptian designers. It would be a waste to have this chance and hold back and present just 20 designers for example,” Elshahed says.

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Cairo Now: City Incomplete! display at Dubai Design Week in Dubai Design District (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

From chairs to playing cards, the diverse works are linked through the exhibition design structure itself, by architect Adham Selim. 

Selim made a clever solution for the space that fits it all and allows ample walkways too. The spaces loosely comprises of two sides -- on the right are mostly product and furniture designs, and the centre and left is mostly dedicated to graphic design, publications and two dimensional works.

The graphic design side was the overwhelming part, with lots of visuals vying for your attention at the same time. Typography artist Gaber, whose fonts are presented in posters among the wall display, usually feels the space between the posters should be wider, so each one can take its share, and be seen comfortably.

However Elshahed reminds us that this is not a fine art exhibition, and this presentation can actually benefit the work.

“The value of this type of work, like graphic and product design increases when you see it around more work, not when it’s seen by itself. Graphic design and posters express and respond to elements in the urban – which never has things framed on their own. So when you see this next to this and that, you can start to make connections that you wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise,” he says.

Seen from that angle, it does feel like an immersive portal into ‘Cairo Now'.

Speaking to audiences at the exhibit revealed a positive reception of the display. Elshahed himself has received positive feedback.

“Almost everyone I talked to, between organisers and visitors have told me it’s the best show [at DDW.] The interesting and different response was from a few Egyptians, who asked what does incomplete mean, how are you portraying Egypt?"

Flourishing in the incomplete

“One of the challenges was that some have interesting works, but have no experience in how to present it. The unrealised potential is in the missing links, and the entrepreneurship knowledge of getting them out there. Many [product designers] still don’t have collections, or have a plan for going out of Cairo, that’s a market waiting to be penetrated. There’s still a lot to be done for the potential to be fully realised,” says Elshahed.

Are these promising ‘project incompletes’ enough to change the urban scene and affect its landscape?

Elshahed sees the impact in different ways. Placing projects in different development phases side by side in the exhibition automatically puts them on the same level, and sort of says it is possible that this single prototype can transform into the more advanced ones.

“Menn Baladha for instance, have made products that are Egyptian and contemporary and can be sold here or in an international market, because it’s high quality. The impact is local but potentially global as well. Just their intervention of working with these artisans, also has a positive impact on the social fabric,” Elshahed says.

A more tangible impact is seen through the work of Refuse, who by making bags and products reused tonnes of plastic.

Given complete liberty, it was a curatorial decision to showcase these and not retrospective designs from an older era (similar to Brilliant Beirut’s Iconic City display last year) or to focus on his speciality, which is modern Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s.

“But then no one really would benefit, and the designers working now would not get showcased. So it's important to spotlight them.”

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Cairo Now: City Incomplete! display at Dubai Design Week in Dubai Design District (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Elshahed then had to decide who would make the cut, with some sort of selection criteria.

“I was looking for people who were really engaging a bit more seriously, even if their product was not the most successful, and made something with the available resources,” Elshahed says.

Curatorial assistant Mohamed Wahdan who was present in Dubai added “We were basically looking for Cairo now, a mix between the traditional and modern, and we also tried to harness this opportunity to showcase young designers. So the relevance of the piece to the theme of the exhibition, and the potential of the designers, these two aspects were the most important.

Elshahed sees an recent widespread obsession with what looks authentic and oriental in the Arab world that has turned into Kitsch, and simplifying the Egyptian character to the symbolic, like the Khayameya fabric.

“These [selected] designers are doing inventive things, they don’t feel pressured to imitate what they’ve seen abroad, nor are they preoccupied with the notion of Egyptian authenticity. They make interesting work that mostly stems from materials, like pipes that are turned into lighting fixtures, the material is the guide,” says Elshahed.

Two main trends he noticed running through the works are recycling and repurposing materials, and revisiting traditional crafts like glass and clay to make contemporary pieces.

"Despite these trends most of the designers in the show hadn’t heard of others who do similar works. The similar directions arise because they respond to the same environment. If many of them are working on recycling, it's because the city has a waste problem,” he says.

The exhibition is not only to showcase designers to an audience, but it creates this network for creatives to be introduced to each other.

“When they see others’ work it can help them grow, and maybe have a little healthy competitiveness,” Elshahed notes.

Through the DDW experience, the designers one one hand get exposure for their work, and on the other get exposed to the latest in design at Dubai.

Gaber says it gave him “a nice chance to connect with the design scene in Dubai, I knew some of them through the internet, but didn’t have the chance to see spaces like Taskheel for example, so it’s good to connect with the designers here.”

Springboard into the future

A 90 page booklet commissioned by Elshahed in collaboration with Egyptian online publication Mada was printed and distributed there. Design is in every element, even the booklet’s cover turns into a poster.

Beyond Dubai and further on the horizon, the curators have hopes for recreating the exhibition in Egypt, even if on a smaller scale.

“This project was very interesting to me, I had come back to Egypt and was kind of frustrated and hopeless about the situation, but getting to interact with the creative community and seeing that there is so much happening was very uplifting, and made me really proud and happy,” Wahdan says.

“This community is coming together now, so I guess something could be done. Cairo is so large compared to places like Dubai, and Abu Dhabi [where I lived]. If these projects were in any other place, it would be obvious that there is a creative community, but Cairo is so large it swallows them."

He also notes that this group of designers have a type of activism and “are driven to change the urban scene, and have an interest in social engagement.”

Wahdan hopes the Cairo Now exhibit could be used as a launch pad for a design week in Cairo or something else such as a designers collective.

“Through the years the design scene was shaped through competition, everyone wants to build his own brand alone, with no social engagement. I like how for these designers it’s more collaborative -- they don’t have the ego of the artist that stops collaboration. So I can see this happening.”

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Cairo Now: City Incomplete! display at Dubai Design Week in Dubai Design District (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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