Art hopping in Cairo

April was a busy month for art aficionados in Cairo. Several exhibitions, performances and talks opened across the city. Many venues also hosted the third edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). But, for the first time, people could also add to their list a map of artist studios to visit.

Medrar, an artist-run space in Cairo, launched its “Studio Hopping” project on April 16. Displayed in its Garden City space were a range of artworks and paraphernalia by 18 Egyptian artists who took part in the 10-day program. Ahmed Sabry brought in a painting he made of a morphed human who stares back at viewers. Dia Hamed, who has been co-designing interactive, technology-based projects, exhibited a series of personal photographs and two servings of cat food, wired to produce sounds when people approached the work. Ahmed Badry hung two sketches of one of the gigantic sculptures he makes on a wall, while Hashem L Kelesh brought in his sketchbook and printouts of his digital paintings.

Ali Abdel Mohsen shared two books from a series he collected at a street stand years back. The first is titled “Gog and Magog are coming.” The second transcribes a journalist’s “interview with a Muslim genie.” Those who decided to flip through the publications found some little surprises that the artist had left inside. The books were displayed on a side table, along with a stuffed lamb and a radio. Photographer and filmmaker Hala Elkoussy also recreated a personal space in the gallery. She repainted a wall in greyish blue and pinned to it some framed photos, which she had either shot or was inspired by. She also brought in her desk and on the opening night people could flip through her work on a laptop.

Based on these displays and interactions, audiences could sign up for one (or more) studio visit with the artists. What took place at the studios was totally up to the artists and guests. The visits were meant to be “unplanned and unscripted … an exercise in improvisation,” Medrar stated in its curatorial text.

The “Studio Hopping” project attracted a range of visitors from artists, curators, gallerists and historians to the average audience. Dagmar Maria Stelkens, for instance, worked with downtown Cairo’s Mashrabia Gallery for years. Still, she signed up to visit Sabry and Elkoussy with whom she had previously worked on exhibitions. This was the first time she enters their workspaces, she explained. Elkoussy offered her and the four other visitors a tour of her studio, talking about previous projects and showing them the room where she shoots most of her films. Open studios are a common practice in Stelkens’ hometown, Bonn. In Cairo, even for a gallerist, it is not that usual, she told Mada Masr.

For the artists, hosting a group of people they do not necessarily know was also an exciting experiment. When visited on the last day of the project by photographers Mohamed Ezz and Omneya Naguib, Elkoussy held more personal, one-on-one conversations rather than a tour. Ezz explained that for him it was interesting to learn how Elkoussy made the transition from commercial photography into the art field. He had followed Elkoussy’s work for years, but this was the first time they got to speak in an informal setting.

Naguib also got to visit artists Ganzeer and Ammar Abu Bakr, known for their street art. The conversations were also spontaneous, occasionally touching back on their art, and, of course, politics. Abu Bakr also showed his visitors a documentary he was featured in: Marco Williams’ film “Art War”, which follows a group of Egyptian artists and musicians between 2011 and 2013.

Such personal conversations were what many visitors were after. Cairo-based artist Sonja Moser was among the few who did most of the studio visits. At Abdel Mohsen’s, they chatted about art and living in Cairo. They also got to go through some of his writings as a journalist. Others shared art projects they were working on with their hosts for feedback.

Veteran painter Mohamed Abla was the only artist who directly involved his visitors in his studio work. Guests were encouraged to pick up the paintbrushes and improvise. They could also come back later to finish their paintings as they wished. If it weren’t for the limited time of the 10-day program, many visitors said they would have liked to come back.

Medrar was hoping to also attract art students from around the city. For the group of emerging to mid-career artists that Medrar chose for “Studio Hopping,” it was visits like this that helped develop their practices early on. Making this happen in the project’s pilot phase, however, was challenging and required better coordination with the faculty and administrators of the three main art schools in nearby neighborhoods. But it’s an important goal if the “Studio Hopping” project is to be repeated, which many of the participating artists and visitors are certainly looking forward to.

Mai Elwakil 

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