Cairo is known worldwide for its unique history and wide array of tourist attractions. It is also known for being one of the most polluted cities in the world. For Cairo residents, it is probably best known as the “grey city” where colour and green areas are overtaken by dust and smog.
Two independent initiatives recently sprouted out of this grim reality to attempt a change to the grey city: a student-run initiative calling itself 'Colouring the Grey City' and one founded by an American resident artist in Cairo dubbed 'Cairo Dish Painting Initiative'.
While these two initiatives are laudable, one hopes they will manage to spread into real movements to fill the city with colour as previous attempts by either independent groups, non-governmental organisations or corporations have not managed to have a strong impact.
Colouring the Grey City: Young hopefulness for urban happiness
Set to graduate in 2017, a group of students studying interior design at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University were dismayed at the state the city had reached. They decided to take to the streets to change that.
“Since our passion in life is all about colours we decided that our city needs some brightness in its streets. That’s why we came up with the idea of going around the city and colouring different parts of it to add joy and happiness to the hearts of people. Our dream is to see the whole country in colours but we can’t do that alone so please start where you are, add a touch of colour to your city and see the change in people’s lives,” the group say on their Facebook page, which has over 27,000 likes to date.
The students have already painted staircases, walls and lamp posts in several neighbourhoods and are planning several more to come.
According to Rana Tarek, a member of Colouring the Grey City, after their first painting day in the Cairo districts of Agouza, Kitkat and Ghamra, they were joined by many volunteers from outside their group.
Tarek also mentions that in spite of their efforts to get support from the local municipality, the local government was only responsive in granting them permission to paint, but did not help with cleaning or materials.
Cairo Dish Painting Initiative: Splashing rooftops with colour
One cannot deny the power a fresh perspective has on a city. American resident artist at Artellewa, Jason Stoneking, was taken by the view of satellite dishes which has become an icon of the Egyptian capital.
While most would look at these dishes as dusty, depressing objects in the Cairo skyline, Stoneking saw them as an opportunity for colour and self-expression. After painting one rooftop in Ardellewa – an informal neighbourhood in north-west Cairo where he is staying for his residency – he started a Facebook page which now has more than 8,000 likes.
Stoneking has been invited to paint more dishes in Ardellewa, and more recently in El-Marg, where Ahram Online caught up with him to capture the moment on film (watch below). However, the artist hopes the movement will spread beyond residents inviting him to paint their roofs.
According to Mohamed Hemdan, who invited the artist to paint his rooftop in El-Marg through his son Abdo who works in Artellewa, he sees potential for the movement to grow in El-Marg due to his neighbours' interest while they painted.
Other people from Nasr City, New Cairo and Ain Sokhna have also sent their photos to Stoneking, which he posted on Facebook.
Attempts to colour Cairo: A dark horse
For initiatives like Colouring the Grey City and Cairo Dish Painting Initiative to succeed, they cannot depend on their own individual efforts. What these initiatives need to push for, is to really start a movement for painting the city.
Otherwise, over time these efforts will be too fragmented to notice after the hype on both initiatives is long gone, and the Cairo dust will finish off whatever these groups actually manage to take care of as we have seen in the past.
Especially in the year following the January 25 revolution, many similar initiatives sprouted. One that comes to mind is Egypt in Colours, which was also an initiative by Fine Arts Faculty students who painted walls in several areas of Cairo such as Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, Maadi and Helwan.
Another initiative was by the Young Artists Coalition who worked in Imbaba and El-Fagala, which are formal areas within Cairo, but are under-privileged. The coalition worked in close contact with the community and painted each house to reflect the stories of its residents.
These initiatives, and others which included young people painting sidewalks of main streets in the city sporadically, were all welcomed in the communities they worked in. However, once the young artists stopped visiting these communities the initiatives failed to develop into a real movement, and became merely a colourful dot in a sea of grey.
One initiative which had a long-lasting impact was urban development company Takween's projects in Ezbet Khairallah and Manshiyet Nasser. The company, which is run by architects and urban planners, launched an initiative called Masr Bel Alwan (also translates to Egypt in Colours) but this initiative took a holistic approach to colouring the areas.
Takween integrated the process of colouring within a larger plan for urban development in these areas, and asked residents to participate whether with a small financial contribution or by volunteering in the painting process.
According to Nevine Akl, an architect and founder of the project, in Ezbet Khairallah they painted five buildings that were visible from the Ring Road, to draw attention to the project. One of the things that motivated the residents was the fact that rent for the flats within buildings that were painted were significantly higher than those who weren't.
Akl also mentions that in Mansheyet Nasser - a more well-off neighbourhood in comparison to Khairallah - when new buildings were being constructed they followed the new colour schemes Takween and the community had established.
In this case it is clear that the intervention left an organic and sustainable impact.
Artist Rana Elnemr captured such a movement in 2003 with her project 'The Balcony Series' where she photographed balconies in informal areas each of which were painted in vibrant and unique colours.
This case is an example of a movement that started in an organic fashion from local residents and thus it continues even in the grimmest of neighbourhoods.
Cairo's urban landscape is continuously a question of debate, and initiatives offering an alternative reality should be embraced and celebrated. However, the initiatives themselves have a responsibility to direct their efforts to engaging the public in a meaningful way for their projects to continue.