El Mataam El Mish-Masry or, the non-Egyptian restaurant exhibition in artellewa, Ard El Lewa, Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)
Located in Cairo’s Ard El-Lewa, a bustling informal residential neighbourhood, rests a green-lit kitchen, a food cart with onlookers constantly stopping by, and women from the neighbourhood walking in and out with pots and pans of food to be cooked in the kitchen.
Once stopping by, however, one is struck by its unconventional name, El-Matam El-Mish Masry, the Non-Egyptian Restaurant.
The exhibition — as it later becomes apparent — is part of the Artellewa Art Space, playing on its venue in Ard El-Lewa. A four-week long show, from 3 to 27 November, the exhibition-restaurant of El-Mataam El-Mish Masry addresses a pressing concern of food sovereignty and deteriorating soil and produce, by shedding light on a number themes.
Spanish visual artist Asunción Molinos Gordo, whose recent work has focused on rural issues and the agricultural wealth of different countries, stated that she wanted to "use the restaurant as a platform for discussion."
In attempting to create a space for engagement between the residents of Ard El-Lewa, Gordo believes that crucial issues had to be addressed, one of which was the loss of agricultural land, which the neighbourhood historically was rich in. Most of this fertile land has been eaten up by residential buildings. Ard El-Lewa stands as an example of this phenomenon, greatly evident throughout the country.
Gordo adds: "In order to be able to engage with the community, I had to make this space as familiar to the community as possible." From the look of the place to the methodology, to the cooperation of residents by allowing to them to cook in the kitchen, Gordo attempted to do so.
"I wanted to do something [consistent with] the context of the site," she explains.
The first two weeks are meant to offer a comparative analysis internationally of local conditions and produce.
In the first week, from 10 to 13 November, food was cooked with the best products grown in Egypt, yet products intended for a world market and rarely accessible to the Egyptian population. Iranian-Swedish chef Elisabeth Shoghi and her sister helped in preparing the recipes.
In the second week, however, food was cooked by four Egyptian women by using their budgets for their households in cooking traditional Egyptian dishes.
The third week, set to start Saturday, will take place through symbolic harvesting, starting off in close proximity to the exhibition, and then increasing to a radius of one kilometre.
The symbolic harvest will include collecting trash: plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and the like.
In the fourth week, from 24 to 27 November, in coordination with Egyptologist Salima Ikram, the theme of the week will be agro-archeology. Gordo explains that this will be an attempt at finding the "lost civilisation of the fellah" (Egyptian farmer).
Parallel to it, participants will also be looking at rooftops, usually used as breeding space for chickens, pigeons, and rabbits in urban neighbourhoods. The produce from these rooftops will be used for cooking that week’s meals.
In this attempt to engage with the community and open a space for discussion, Gordo states that it is a big challenge to bring these topics up in Ard El-Lewa. However, she explains that starting with the name itself, El-Mataam El-Mish Masry, "it provokes people, makes them question why it isn’t Egyptian," she states.
"It makes us talk about what the food was like in the past and what it is like today, given the increasing use of cancerous pesticides used in agriculture and the lack of clean water and the overwhelming use of sewage water for irrigation."
Commenting on the methodology of the project, Gordo notes that "art always tries to find this strange place between reality and fiction," which is reflected in this project.
A man walks by and asks, "So what are you cooking us tomorrow?" Gordo answers: fasolya (green peas).