Authors: Manar Moursi and David Puig
Published by Onomatopee & Al-Kotob Khan
Publication date: October, 2015
Language: English & Arabic
Number of pages: 214
Book Review: Ronnie Close
Sidewalk Salon is a new photographic project by artists Manar Moursi and David Puig that maps improvised seating arrangements in public spaces in Cairo. This playful visual taxonomy was compiled over a period of four years and comprises 1001 chairs, recorded during 50 city walks, each ranging from one to several hours.
The authors’ wanderings through Cairo involved photographing the street chairs and interviewing their occupants and the impromptu communities that formed around them. The publication is complimented by three short fiction stories, three poems, a detailed introduction, a selection of interviews and three maps.
Other than the functional role of the chairs as everyday objects and places of rest, Moursi and Puig present another aspect of them as agents of violence or weapons of subversion, through various images of street unrest during the 2011 upheavals. These photographs are expanded full bleed on the pages in graphic black and white. In one photograph, for example, a bullet hole and streaks of blood on a chair outside a Coptic Church displays traces of sectarian violence, while in another image, a man armed with a knife uses the chair as an improvised shield. In such situations the role of the chair is heightened by its circumstance.
In many ways this book is more than a standard photography publication on chairs, as it includes several other representational forms of the everyday object. The chair images are mostly captured straight on, with minimal space around the object frame. This simple photographic approach has been an integral part of art photography for decades, since German conceptual art duo Bernd and Hilla Becher used it in the 1970s. It has become a common way of representing objects, by isolating the latent qualities of the object and creating comparative observation through volume and repetition. This precise visual style raises some issues because it presents the photograph as evidence of a viewpoint that obscures the presence of the photographer.
Sidewalk Salon makes use of this systematic deadpan approach, mirroring the basic function of the seat — to offer respite, but with a stylistic twist. The images have a nostalgic feel, shot on Polaroid cameras, as the authors found digital images to be “too clinical, glossy and bright” for this project. The physical presence of a Polaroid print also helped them build rapport with the chair users when negotiating the boundaries between public and personal space. With the domination of digital photography, this technique, used by street photographers in the analogue past, has become almost obsolete today.
The use of such an outdated amateur photographic tool evokes a romantic, nostalgic vision of everyday life in Cairo. The Polaroid has a hazy visual appearance, giving a washed-out look, like the Instagram filter that has become so popular on social media platforms, softening the sensory intensity of Cairo street life. The chairs themselves are mostly made from cheap materials to endure the elements and wear and tear.
The chair provides a certain position or perspective on the world and it can be a testament to the long working days of its user, a space that is often under the gaze of and for men. In some cases the chair provides a social space of distraction for the unemployed, or others with time on their hands. These stories are revealed through the different interviews in the book. Due to the patriarchal nature of street life in Cairo the voices are mostly from men, who discuss their chairs with pride and humor, though rarely with affection. The time they spend on them is a blend of work and social roles, in which they interact with a cast of characters: security guards, street vendors, doormen, mechanics. Through the interviews we discover much of what they observe and think about during the working day.
This book is perhaps overly curated and designed at the expense of visual quality, and the chairs themselves have been appropriated as part of a catalogue that removes them from their everyday context and imbues them with meaning and significance. It is, however, an accolade to a city of stories, myth and time, with a particular visual character, woven together to fashion a portrait of quotidian life.
Limited copies of Sidewalk Salon, 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo are available from the Townhouse Gallery bookstore, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or from a number of distribution outlets listed here: http://www.sidewalksaloncairo.com/distribution.
The Contemporary Image Collective in downtown Cairo also has a copy in the library for viewing.