“What on Earth,” an awareness programme expressing climate change through art, saw its first edition “Sustainable Design Festival” at the historic Granada Palace in Heliopolis between 8 and 12 December under the auspices of the Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Culture. It was organised by the Al-Beit magazine and Six Yards, powered by Cred Developments, and hosted by partner the Heliopolis Company for Housing and Development.
“What on Earth is a big umbrella sheltering many activities aiming at raising awareness about environmental issues through artistic practices. We also participated in the UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh with two installations and a seminar in the Green Zone,” Sawsan Mourad, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Beit magazine, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The festival aimed to meet the three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental. It encouraged Egypt’s creative green industries and aimed to raise awareness about climate change through 12 art installations, more than 100 exhibitors, and talks, workshops, and panel discussions.
“The idea to launch an environmental awareness initiative using art came from our belief that art and cultural activities that engage people from different generations and cultures working on different art practices are the easiest way to send a message or express an idea,” Mourad said.
Al-Beit printed the whole of its November issue on recycled paper for the first time for any publication from the national press. It was distributed during the COP27 Conference in all hotels and conference halls as an exception for a paper publication because it observed environmental standards.
Visitors to the What on Earth event at the Granada Palace were absorbed in a spiritual journey of art, nature, creativity, architecture and every beautiful thing in between, evoking mixed feelings of hope, guilt, nostalgia and purpose.
The outdoor arena at the event featured integrated visual experiences curated by leading Egyptian architects and artists, as well as insightful talks, panel discussions, meditation practices and art workshops, where different creatives emphasised the problems we will experience if we keep on damaging the natural world around us.
Our negligence and ignorance are responsible for that damage, they said. But we always have the choice of changing our habits and adopting sustainability.
The Royal Building hosted an installation called “Granada Realities” curated by Rashid Kamel, a leading art collector in Egypt and the Middle East, and featuring the artwork of artist Khaled Hafez. The exhibition is part of a series of events under the title “Through a Collector’s Eye” founded and curated by Kamel.
The present installation was about life, the life cycle, recycling and upcycling, and the focal point was a corpse, mummified in the soil with greenery resembling the rebirth of life, as well as worms to represent the organic process of decay and the food chain. It was a shocking yet serene depiction of death and rebirth.
“With art you can send a very clear but subtle message,” Kamel said.
All the senses were addressed in an aesthetic and experiential engagement that reflected on our shared humanity and was open to interpretation. “An artwork that is dynamic touches all your senses at the same moment,” Kamel commented.
The installation was intended not to be static, and there were some 4,000 plastic bags on the floor as a metaphor of how human waste is taking over the planet. “This waste will remain with us forever. We wanted to show that it’s taking over our life in the context of this artwork,” Kamel said.
The arena also featured “Reflection” by Architect Ahmed Fayyad, co-founder and director of the FR Partnership, an architecture and interior design firm, looking at how global warming is affecting the world’s forests and reflecting on what we have done to the environment.
“It’s a reflection of you in a mirror. You see the damage around you through this mirror, while on the other, greener side, you can also see paradise. It’s up to you to choose which path you want to follow,” Fayyad said.
“According to statistics, 85 per cent of forest fires are the result of climate change and not other incidents. They are related to the rise in temperatures, and this starts a fire which can then spread over a very large area,” he added.
In his installation art, Fayyad has tried to tackle the fires that have been taking place in the Amazon in Latin America by researching maps, photographs, and aerial images of the forests. “These show the difference between fire-affected areas and unburned forest is always a sharp straight line separating the living nature from man-made damage,” Fayyad said.
“I imagined a ratio of two third to only one between damaged trees and healthy ones, thinking of this as a sign that it’s over, we are living on the edge and we only have a little left before being totally damaged,” he said.
“I used a mirror, a significant reflective element representing the separation between zones, as a metaphor to reflect on humanity’s influence on the environment,” he added. If we can be persuaded to look at ourselves in the mirror, and see the damage we have contributed to in our own reflection, perhaps we will take steps to save the environment.
Another installation was the “One Bottle at a time” that was placed in the Green Zone at the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh and has now been moved to Cairo. It is by Karim Al-Hayawan and Nehal Leheta, co-founders of the interior design studio Design Point, and points to the harmful effects of plastic bottles.
The life cycle of bottled water uses fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and causes pollution. Drawing on the idea of imbalances in the ecosystem, the two designers shed light on the horrific amount of consumption that this day-to-day item involves and provide advice on upcycling water bottles to make multi-purpose light structures.
“Festival of Nature” by Hoda Lasheen, Founder of Hoda Lasheen Design Studio is a work of community seating that emphasises the beauty, simplicity, and rawness of nature. It attracts passers-by to talk, sit, and reminisce, and all of it is made of repurposed and eco-friendly materials. Lasheen has chosen a serene colour palette, with the wood in its natural state decorated with coloured birds made of glass left overs.
“I was trying to send a message that the simpler the design, the more it shows the beauty of nature, while at the same time creating an eco-installation that people can actually use and is not just for show,” Lasheen said.
The inside of the building showcased a wide range of products including jewelry, clothes, furniture, arts, crafts, and home decoration all made from local materials that are eco-friendly, sustainable, or repurposed. They are made by local Egyptian factories and were beautifully displayed on palm branches in the exhibition in a way that takes visitors on a journey into nature.
The Ro-Plastic Prize, a global competition founded by Rossana Orlandi and Nicoletta Orlandi to raise awareness about rewaste, also exhibited in the festival to inform Egyptian designers about the competition and encourage them to participate.
“Al-Beit magazine has a strong Italian partnership through the platform Cairo Milano Design that we founded two years ago. That’s how we attracted the renowned Italian designers present at the festival to participate. The Ro-Plastic Prize is an international award that will be showcased in the Milan Design Week in 2023,” Mourad said.
Art is a way of connecting people and is a universal energy that all people speak beyond the boundaries of language and nationality. It connects intuitively to our hearts, enriches our minds, and shifts our perspectives. It can reunite us with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. Artists can narrate collective stories and immerse people in sensory experiences that can lead to tangible change.
All of this was in evidence at this year’s What on Earth Sustainable Design Festival. “Art has the power to raise awareness about any issue when it is true, free, honest, and not commercial,” Mourad said, adding that this is what the initiative was trying to achieve. “All the exhibitors had been invited to participate for free and to express their ideas freely,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly