Egypt’s first walk-through exhibition born from trash

Heba El-Sherif, Tuesday 16 Sep 2014

Through fusing guided tours, hands-on workshops and music, Darb 1718’s upcoming exhibition Out To Sea? - Cairo proves that trash can be art

Out to Sea
Part of garbage installation at Darb 1718 for Out to Sea (Photo: Courtesy of Out to Sea team)

When someone comes across a pile of garbage, their immediate reaction is never contemplative. In fact, it would be unnatural to muse at a heap of trash in sober reflection, almost as unnatural as the sight of plastic swimming in the sea.

So when Out To Sea? - Cairo organisers announced that they planned to ask audiences at Darb 1718 to take a moment to “reflect on their relationship with garbage,” it was obvious the show would take a novel approach.

Not just an exhibition

There are countless studies on the stubborn nature of plastic. First conceived sometime in the 20th century, plastic is made of mostly non-degradable elements that live on for years, a couple of hundreds in fact.

Since empty milk cartons, shampoo bottles and even flip-flops have become long-term colonisers of our seas, Darb 1718 Contemporary Arts and Culture Centre was prompted to bring the international project to Egypt.

Out To Sea? originated in the Museum für Gestaltung Zürichin in the Swiss coastal city two years ago. The show has since been on tour in multiple European cities, and is currently being on display in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco, as well as Egypt.

The project is composed of two main parts: the exhibition and the workshops. Catering to several of our senses, the organisers of the project hope to deliver one central message: plastic swimming in seas worldwide is hazardous, and there are alternatives.

The exhibition hall at Darb 1718 is curated so that a maze-like stroll over the two-story space transports viewers between crafted seagulls stuffed with bottle caps and a number of educational stations, or “islands” as coined by the creators. Boasting a variety of text-based information, informational graphs and short videos, each island explores a sub-theme, among them are how plastic affects the food chain, its toll on living organisms in waterways and consumer habits.  

One of the stations on display is the “Alternatives Island” where viewers meet a list of products that use micro plastic as an ingredient (like certain brands of facial wash) juxtaposed against an alternative facial wash that is more eco-friendly.

All the trash utilised throughout the exhibition, which will run until 22 November, has been gathered through mass clean-ups in Marsa Alam, Alexandria and Dahab to bring the show closer to the viewer by ensuring a wider coverage area. While the general structure of the exhibition mirrors its mother edition in Zurich, Cairo organisers have set up a “Nile Island” that is meant to discuss specific hazards and habits pertaining to the Nile River.  

Out to Sea team
Out to Sea - Cairo team (Photo: Marwan Hatem Sherif, Courtesy of Out to Sea - Cairo)

Meet the team

Alongside the staff at Darb 1718, a total of eight dedicated educators and art facilitators are leading Out To Sea? - Cairo. The team was put together last month by educational team coordinator Ali Azmy.

For Azmy, it was important to build a strong dynamic between team members before jumping into specifics.

For the weeks that followed, the team went through a similar process to the one they hope to deliver to audiences of the exhibition. After a series of team building exercises and sessions centred on experiential learning techniques, the team of eight set out to do their research. 

“It was essential to give enough time for the process through which the educators learned about the material and how to deliver it,” Azmy told Ahram Online.

According to Norhan Alaa, a fresh graduate of the Fine Arts School and one of the art facilitators of Out To Sea? - Cairo, this was an essential component.

“We all got to learn more about the manufacturing of plastic, added materials and how this affects the food chain,” she told Ahram Online.

Throughout the preparation period, team members also attended two workshops by external facilitators.

Three out of the eight team members took part in a three-day shadow puppet workshop that blended theatre and visual art into shows resembling the early days of film.  

“It’s really to put it [trash] in a new light; we use the lens [of an overhead projector] and we use the trash to make figures, and you see something different [projected on the wall],” Marie Raemakers of the Dutch shadow theatre group Lichtbende told Ahram Online on the sidelines of the workshop.

“They can see that the spoon becomes a figure, but that it’s still a spoon. We want children to use their own creativity and make their own solutions; perhaps they have better solutions than we think, ideas that are better or more beautiful,” she continued.

Alongside two other Dutch facilitators, Raemakers trained the art facilitators of Out To Sea? - Cairo on how to upcycle various bits of plastic to recreate life underwater in analogue pictures. By dressing up a plastic spoon with candy wrappers for scales, the aim is for children to see that trash is not mere waste, and that much can be done to bring it back to life.

The preparatory workshops are set-up to broaden the horizons of facilitators and expose them to different ways through which they can toy with plastic.

The other workshop held in those pre-stages was led by a French duo who turn trash into daily objects: wallets, ashtrays, rings.

“This was important because it meant that children can make these objects throughout the workshop and take them home, then it remains a model [for what they can do with trash],” said Dia Hamed, one of the art facilitators.

To Hamed, the second workshop was more relevant to the project and more adaptable to the context, particularly when working with children.

Challenges and outreach

“The eight weeks are more than just an execution of the plan, they are a learning experience considering the different kinds of people that will come in,” Hamed told Ahram Online, referring to the attendees of the guided tours that are set to visit the exhibition.

“The most important thing is to be able to link the exhibition to the workshops,” he added. 

While the walk-in exhibition offers a unique educational journey layered with an environmental theme, the workshops are crucial in how they engage young visitors by making the entire experience memorable. Between text, informational graphs and short videos, the walk-through exhibition may be more suitable for an older audience, pressuring the workshops into being informative playgrounds in only 45 minutes.   

“It’s not just an environmental thing; it’s everyone’s business. We have to make it engaging and hands-on and memorable,” said Fareeda Atwan, one of the educators, reiterating what is arguably one of the determining factors of the exhibition’s success.

In a country with a raging waste problem that is yet to be seriously addressed, public environmental efforts are confined to a few pioneering NGOs.

“After the project, we must start thinking of how to educate people in the supermarket to be okay with customers saying ‘No’ to a plastic bag,” said Hamed, pointing to perhaps the more pressing question of how this multi-layered project can contribute to the isolated conversation of rethinking waste. 


Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project – Cairo opens on 19 September at 4pm in Darb 1718
The exhibition and related projects will run until 22 November and afterwards will tour Alexandria and the Red Sea
Throughout the exhibition guided tours will be offered to schools and NGOs in a way of encouraging children to visit the show
Qasr Al-Shamee Street, Al-Fakhareen, Old Cairo (behind the Hanging Church and Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque)

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