Listen while reading the artwork:
Walking around the Heliopolis district of Dhaher at dawn, I enter a small maze of paths, all nine of which lead to the heart of Dhaher: Sakakini Square (the focal point of the district when constructed, formerly a pond, and now a dumpster). It’s an extravagant construction built out of several forms of architectural vernacular which combine to conjure up a fantasy dwelling-cum-architectural zoo.
“New hope for Sakakini Palace,” trumpets a news article from 2013, which describes the horrors of local renovation plans, and schemes to reopen the palace as a medical museum, once again. The article has been circulating online again in recent months amid rumors that the palace had in fact reopened to the public, so I took my chances and went.
As I approach the palace, four water nymphs stand proud over now-dry fountains that are placed on each corner of the palace’s symmetrical plan, posed before a circular niche backdrop topped with a shell, seaweed and foam motif.
The Nymphs gaze upon the garden, never beyond the fence, for eternity.
False windows and odd relief work indicate that there’s a wing that was added to the edifice later, thus limiting the original plan’s rotation and disturbing its symmetrical reflection. I suppose these changes were made when the palace was transformed into a medical instruments museum back in the 60s. The palace was originally meant to be more porous with its surroundings.
After the pilgrimage cycle of moving around the garden, I pass through and enter the palace.
I walk through a custom four-piece hinged French door separating the entrance area from the lobby. The door’s glass is engraved with palms, wild animals and birds — closing the doors creates a full tropical splendor.
But when I bring my gaze back down from this sublime wave of detail and oddities, I realize that this tropical ballroom had been turned into an office, and a few clerks were there, telling me I could only enter with permission from the Ministry of Antiquities.
Public space is a trendy issue in Cairo, both for the government and for independent institutions. But they are both finding it hard to sustain their attempts to allow the public into shuttered spaces. And if that door does open, then what would the palace become?
An embassy of where, a museum of what, a hotel for who, an art institution of which scene?
In the far future, I see people with more logical plans, who are more selective as they decide what can be saved and what cannot be saved, especially regarding those things that occupy land but have no use and generate no revenue. With any construction comes an expiry date — so eventually the palace shall demise, leaving a generous amount of land behind, and a few traces in the form of ruins.
An apocalyptic version of Cairo.
The Nymphaeum Heritage Observatory was an accumulation of different installations investigating the Sakakini Palace that was presented during my six-week residency in the open salon program at the Townhouse in downtown Cairo. These installations were conceived in response to the palace’s relationship with city, past and current urban context, and historical value. The aim was to select physical traces of the palace to be preserved for the future, while excluding all forms of urbanity. These traces would become the main part of an archeological site, and become a sustainable memorial for the future.
The Nymphaeum was a virtual simulation of a mythological order, a parlor room, a simulation of what once was a thriving space and lifestyle, now completely neglected and decaying. The Nymphaeum turns that neglect into a tangible reality, a memorial piece for the future.
I render this future memorial in a way that rejects current ideologies of "public space.” The ruins will be a public space, but only for those who discover it.
All images belong to the author.
This artwork is the first in a series of artistic interventions commissioned for Mada Masr.