The first thing that Jason Stoneking noticed when looking out onto the Cairo skyline was the numerous satellite dishes stacked in rows atop of crowded rooftops. The writer and artist had never seen anything like it in the United States, where he is from, and he was intrigued by the aesthetics of it.
Often seen as a sign of societal disintegration by some and serving as an eyesore to the city’s skyline by others, Stoneking saw the satellite dishes an opportunity to empower the community and create something beautiful in the process.
As a result, the Cairo Dish-Painting Initiative came to life.
“For me, it’s two ideas meeting each other,” says Stoneking. “One is the idea of how Egypt is perceived from the outside when you look out from an airplane or balcony, what they see and how they perceive Cairo. The other idea is from an individual perspective, the person who owns the dish can paint it any color they want and express their own individuality.”
“So for me it’s a meeting point between the expression of the individual and the perception of the community,” he adds.
Stoneking had just landed in Egypt early September for a three-month art residency at Artellewa, an art space in the neighborhood of Ard al-Lewa in Giza, when he started the initiative to paint satellite dishes on top of Cairo’s rooftops a pop of color that stands out among the chaos of the city’s neighborhoods.
“Everyone has this symbol on their roof and they can paint it whatever color they want,” says Stoneking.
The initiative first started in Ard al-Lewa, where Stoneking is also residing, when he gathered his paint supplies and climbed to the top of the buildings of his temporary neighborhood to paint satellite dishes a mix of bright pink, blue and green.
Stoneking feels right at home at Ard al-Lewa, sitting at a local café while residents hound him about pictures he’d taken of them that he later printed and returned to their owners.
“Where’s the picture of me painting on the roof?” asks 10-year-old Moussa Mohamed Moussa. Communicating in symbols and very few words of broken Arabic, Stoneking finally conveys the message that the pictures will be ready end of the week while Moussa impatiently shakes his head in agreement.
“I had a lot of fun painting the dishes, and I like the colors,” declares Moussa, before resorting back to discussing how soon he can get the pictures.
Mahmoud Mohamed, another resident, looks up at the satellite dishes with a smile. “They’re beautiful,” he says.
Mohamed then thinks of how much better it would be if all of the dishes were painted the same way, saying that it would give off a civilized look for Egypt.
“No one cared about the look of the street itself, let alone the rooftop,” says Mohamed.
“It just brings me joy to do something here because these are the people who have been kind enough to host me,” says Stoneking. “The people of the neighborhood have been so welcoming and it’s so nice of them to have us here and allow us to do our work. So it’s important for us to do our work here and give back to the community that’s given so much to us.”
But Stoneking is far from stopping at just Ard al-Lewa, and he would like to see the initiative spread all across different neighborhoods as he is currently planning on painting on a roof in Zamalek and another in Downtown.
With the country currently being politically charged, Stoneking wanted to offer relief from political divisions and create something that is inclusive. He explains that upon arriving in Egypt, there was apprehension that he would create art that was political, controversial or confrontational. Therefore, he chose a form of self-expression that is easily accessible to people of different backgrounds, age groups and political ideals.
However, he admits that he still gets faced with the question of why Egypt needs a foreigner to come paint its satellite dishes. “My answer is always: You don’t,” he says.
Stoneking hopes that the initiative kicks off in a way whereby people continue to paint their own dishes.
“I definitely think it’s more interesting if other people paint their own dishes than if I came to their house and do it, because it’s not my community and it’s not my country,” says Stoneking. “So I love the idea that I can help start this project and inspire people. But at the end, it’s about the people here and what colors they like and what they want to say from their rooftops.”
The initiative has already received pictures from people who have taken the project into their own hands by painting their dishes themselves.
Fady Azzouny, a 26-year-old veterinary doctor, is one of them.
Azzouny could relate to the initiative as he also recalls looking out from the airplane about to land in Cairo only to see grey and dusty colors. “I imagined that if I did this, and a lot of other people did it too, Egypt will be colorful,” he says.
Azzouny found out about the initiative through their Facebook page, and has encouraged his fiancée and her family to follow suit.
The initiative has even led to a YouTube tutorial showing people how to paint their own, but Stoneking still wishes for more stories like Azzouny’s to keep coming.
“I really hope that when I leave, the dish painting initiative doesn’t stop. I hope that it can keep flourishing and growing, and become a way for people to express themselves,” says Stoneking.
Before coming to Egypt, Stoneking was living in Paris, France, for quite some time and notes that there are advantages and disadvantages to the art scene here in comparison to European countries.
“There’s a great freedom here because in some ways you can do whatever you want, there are so many available materials and so many people who want to work and volunteer and help… Anything you can imagine with your mind, someone can build it, so that’s really liberating,” says Stoneking, referring to local craftsmanship, wood workers, metal workers and printing houses.
However, he adds that there are often organizational difficulties, such as water or electricity cuts, that hinder the work.
“In Europe, it’s the opposite. You always have water, you always have Internet, but nobody cares about what you’re doing,” he jokes.
Stoneking also adds that when he was leaving Paris, he had heard of at least two or three art galleries closing down, since fewer people are interested in art. However, in Egypt, he says that there are new places opening up, and various groups starting street art and performance art projects.
Which is why Stoneking is happy to give back to Egypt and what he describes as its “exciting art scene.“
“Egypt has been so welcoming to me so I want to make some pretty things while I’m here, just as a way to say thank you for having me,” he says.
Pulling up a chair next to Stoneking at Ard al-Lewa’s local café, 10-year-old Moussa stares ahead at the brick and cement exterior of the building in front of him. “Can he paint the walls of the building for us too?” he asks.