Contemporary Egyptian Artists

Rana El Nemr (Cairo) and Maha Maamoun (Cairo), in their photo series present unusual and unexpected points of view on prosaic details of the cityscape. Maamoun looks for an idea of, or surrogate of nature in the city, and finds it in the colourful dresses and veils of the women of Cairo; El Nemr reassembles photographs of painted balconies taken in the vernacular districts and in the informal housing areas of Cairo into imaginative collages of residential blocks.

The layered histories embedded in the city of Cairo are themes in works by Susanne Kriemann(Rotterdam/Berlin) and Hermann Huber (Vienna), who during residencies in Cairo did research on its architecture and urban space. Kriemann shows the transformations of the megalopolis through a collection of archival images of the pharaonic statue of Ramses II and its surroundings. In the Nasser era the statue symbolized the roots of the Egyptian nation and was set in front of Cairo’s central station where it stayed until, in 2006, it was moved due to preservation issues. Hermann Huber films an abandoned, decaying colonial department store in the middle of Cairo, that is filled nowadays with small sweatshops. Huber’s tableau vivant is a psychological portrait of a building, and shows another side of contemporary globalization

The informal housing areas in the peripheries of Cairo (ashway’iyat, literally: random), large red-brick agglomerates built according to no plan, where the poor live in often appalling conditions, are home to an estimated five million people scattered throughout more than one hundred informal communities. In her installation Nermine El Ansari (Cairo) juxtaposes paintings inspired by these informal agglomerates in Cairo’s surroundings with paintings of concrete buildings in commercial districts. Informal communities are even populating the rooftops of the central districts of Cairo. The invisible rooftop dwellers are the protagonists of the black and white photo series Under the Same Sky: Rooftops of Cairo (2002-2003) by Randa Shaath (Cairo). Doa Aly (Cairo) looks into another almost invisible community in the Egyptian capital: that of Chinese female immigrants who work in Egypt on tourist visas, selling cheap clothing (made in China) door-to-door.

Themes of transformation, density and the urban condition inform works by Khaled Hafez(Cairo), Christoph Oertli (Basel/Brussels), and Hany Rashed (Cairo), each using different media. Hafez’ aerial cityscapes freeze a surreal Cairo during extreme light conditions at dusk and dawn. In his film Cairo, Oertli empties the city of its crowds, leaving the protagonist to drift completely alone through the deserted city: a most unlikely situation in present-day Cairo. Rashed on the other hand, playfully fills the exhibition space with a crowd of small sculptures portraying urban life and the varied population of Cairo’s public spaces.

Street sellers and workers, car horns, calls to prayers, coffee shop conversations, whistles, recorded music, mobile phones, car alarms, stray dogs and wild bird colonies: for sound artistGilles Aubry (Berlin) the Cairo soundscape is a sleepless conversation. His immersive sound installation for Cairoscape provides visitors to the exhibition with an acoustic journey through the mega city. Travelling, and the difficulty for Egyptians to travel abroad due to restrictive western visa policies, are addressed by Aubry as well as by Maia Gusberti (Vienna). Gusberti’s series of photographs Travel.agencies is a project about visual representations of travelling based on the aesthetics of travel agencies in downtown Cairo, where foreign places are not represented by images but by aged world maps, leaving it to the occasional clientele to imagine their destinations. Foreign travelling, or going abroad to find work and better living conditions, is a mirage to most young Egyptians. According to statistics, 80% of youngsters under twenty-five (i.e. 65% of the entire Egyptian population) want to go to the West, but obtaining necessary visas to leave the country is very difficult.

Social issues, particularly the question of male identity in contemporary Egyptian society, are central to Cairo-based Ahmed Khaled’s experimental film production. His latest film, Fish Eye, offers a subtle and contradictory perspective on urban life in Cairo as seen from the viewpoint of an unemployed, middle-class Egyptian man in his thirties, who suffers from insomnia. As unemployment is endemic in Cairo, the nameless protagonist of the film embodies an entire generation of young people without jobs and without prospects. Ahmed Khaled displays in a surreal and rather ruthless way the position of the marooned Egyptian man in a modern, impersonal society. The question suspended throughout the film is: With such a life, does it really matter whether he sleeps or not? (text: Marina Sorbello)

Doa Aly


Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty, 2006. Video.

In the video Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty, Doa Aly follows Susu, Mama and Lulu, three Chinese immigrants living in Cairo, in an interrogation of the dynamics of cross cultural integration in Egypt. The artist allows us a look into the almost invisible community of Chinese female immigrants who work in the Egyptian capital on tourist visas, selling cheap clothing (made in China, of course) door to door. Issues of displacement, belonging and memory are recurring themes that speak to the particular dynamics of globalization and migration and their effects on individual lives in and beyond Africa.

Gilles Aubry

Outside of the Plane, 2008. Sound-installation.

Gilles Aubry carries on an ongoing research activity on formal, perceptual and anthropological aspects of sound production and reception, including topics like auditory perception, space representation, site specificity, cultural acoustics, streams of information and interactivity. With the immersive sound installation Outside the Plane Gilles Aubry offers visitors an acoustic journey through Cairo. Street sellers and workers, car horns, prayer calls, coffee shop conversations, whistles, cassette players, mobile phones, car alarms, lost dogs and wild birds colonies: The Cairo soundscape is a sleepless conversation. It reveals a constellation of social power and tensions where each loud utterance is a possible cry, and a call at the same time, where each voice is a body-extension used to stake-out more space or at least to signalize, and thus fight for, a (more or less gendered) presence. Having a voice is a condition of survival in the over-crowded mega city.  (Text: Gilles Aubry)

Nermine El Ansari


Constructions 2, 2007. Sound-Installation.

In her installation Nermine El Ansari juxtaposes paintings inspired by the informal agglomerates in the surroundings of Cairo (ashway’iyat, literally: random), and paintings featuring concrete buildings of commercial, wealthy districts. In painting countless buildings, El Ansari engages in a process that parallels that of a construction worker confronted by tedious tasks, and creates an illusion of a city where two sides of a schizophrenic entity collide. Previously orderly, separate, divided, distinct, in Constructions 2 the cityscapes are brought into confrontation and crash one against the other. Disruption is also imposed on the viewer through a silkscreen print of helicopters, which is compounded by the sound of an Apache helicopter flying overhead, transforming the viewer into an occupant of the buildings they see. (Text: Nermine El Ansari)

Sherif El Azma

The Psycho-Geography of Loose Associations, 2007/08. Text-photo-installation.

The mega-city of Cairo is imagined through psycho-geographical investigation, where selected areas and districts cause a Cairo psycho-geographer named W to mould and force his subjective thoughts into wild associative processes, confusing reality and fiction. The installation is derived from the homonymous multimedia lecture-performance, first rehearsed within the 5th Meeting Pointsfestival (Brussels and various location, 2007-2008).
The journey-like narrative of the works uses subjective logic (or sometimes ill-logic) to question how the city itself performs (or sometimes dysfunctions) on the surface. Through such questioning, suspicion, paranoia – and on a good day mere reflection – the city of Cairo is imagined as both an organism and as an ever-changing consciousness, shifting between the objective, official representation of the city and a highly personal view.

Hala El Koussy

On Refrains, Sets and a Backdrop, 2006. Installation (wallpaper, curtains,  assorted chairs, and single channel video We’re by the Sea Now).

We’re by the Sea Now is of and about the city, a subject inextricably woven into the work of Hala Elkoussy. Here, centre stage is given over to the Cairo inhabitants through the presentation of an array of disparate anecdotal events, personal accounts, tales and hearsay. The piece makes no attempts at producing macro narratives. The fragmented structure – thirteen vignette-like chapters – further disrupts the production of a unilateral, stable meaning.
Overall, the piece delves into intimate, seemingly banal and overlooked sides of community life. Fact and fiction mix and filmic forms are exploited with liberty: What presents itself as documentary is in some instances fiction and vice-versa.

Rana El Nemr

Telekinesis, 2007. Photo animation.
Tableaux Vivants, 2008. Sculpture.

Telekinesis and Tableaux Vivants are part of an ongoing project by Rana El Nemr, the Balcony Series (initiated 2003), where painted balconies in urban ghettos and vernacular districts of Cairo are photographically documented. In the photo animation Telekinesis the images are reassembled into imaginative collages of residential blocks, showing an illusory, re-composed housing block which adheres to no constructional or architectural standards, defies the laws of nature and challenges the habits of visual perception. The montage is rather an act of joining sequences and patterns of origin, history, culture and aesthetics, illusions and dreams intrinsic to its individual creators. Tableaux Vivants is a three dimensional collage of postcard booklets displaying excerpts from the Balcony Series, shaped by the artist into improvised, informal architecture.

Maia Gusberti

Travel.agencies, 2007. Photo series.

Maia Gusberti’s series of photographs Travel.agencies is a project about the visual representations of travelling in different cultural and economic contexts. It is a photographic research about images and icons of the idea of travelling. The ongoing project was initiated in Cairo, as Gusberti started to document the interior design of local travel agencies, and in particular the way in each of the agencies the experience of the journey was visually represented or was not represented. The Cairo travel agencies do not display images of exotic beaches or remote resorts, nor do they show images of monuments or touristic cities. On the walls, only world maps let the customers in fact imagine their own pictures of the destinations. World maps figure as projection surfaces, imaginary geography.

Khaled Hafez

Cairo Xtreme, 1999-2001. Photo series.

Cairo Xtreme is a series of shots taken from above the El Gezira Tower and from Al Mokkatam plateau in Cairo, during the extreme light conditions of dusk and dawn. They show the mega city of Cairo. Khaled Hafez took the shots using expired ISO-1000 35 mm colour film, wanting to create dramatic effects without any interference from the digital medium; something that would be aesthetically striking despite the banal architectural subjects. The result is a series of taints and hues of artificial, near surrealist nature. No human presence is to be found in the photos. The photos are small, and mounted in relatively large frames to enhance their atmosphere.

Hermann Huber

TIRING, 2006. Photo series and single channel video.

TIRING by Hermann Huber is a film piece between documentary and docu-fiction. It is embedded in the intricate web of history and stories surrounding one of the most spectacular buildings in Egypt’s capital: The Tiring Building on Attaba Square. A landmark at the interface of the old and the new city, the Tiring Building was once the epicentre of trade in the Arabic world and a temple of luxury and fashion crowned by a glass globe carried by four Atlas figures. When the First World War erupted, the Tiring-empire began to crumble. The elegant department store changed owners several times in the course of the following decades. For a while the illusion of luxurious exuberance was held up, but in the sixties and seventies, the mirage of a life in silk and pearls evaporated and Attaba Square as well as the Tiring Building deteriorated into a slum. Austrian photographer and documentarist Huber strips down the symbolical and material qualities of Cairo’s four-story flagship of world trade from the first era of globalization – which, above all, meant exploiting the colonies – by dismantling it in a series of sequences shot from different angles. (text: Thomas Mießgang)

Iman Issa

Making Places, 2007. Photo series and single-chanel video.


In Making Places, a series of 10 c-prints and one single-channel video by Iman Issa, a single figure is depicted attempting to forge relationships with urban landscapes and built environments through a single performative gesture. Ranging in their transformative capacity from futile to profound, these isolated gestures attempt to reverse or subtly alter the polarity of a gravitational field surrounding a subject as a landscape threatens to absorb it.
Though the physical works themselves function as documentation of these gestures, they are in many cases the only prism through which these gestures are capable of existing. Like an aggressive tourist, Issa’s lone figures seek not to engage or participate in the everyday operations of infrastructure or landscape, but to instead assert a form of indirect autonomy using the picture plane as platform.

Ahmed Khaled

Fish Eye, 2007. Video.

Fish Eye explores the insomniac world of a young man who cannot sleep. He lives an alienated existence: jobless, his days have no structure and no aim. Sleepless at night, he is unable to find rest during the day. Chronically tired, and desperate, he starts to confuse nightmares and reality and his all existence gets consequently more and more filled with surreal visions, even when he is awake. For all the duration of the film, it seems there is no way out from this condition. The man seems educated but does not have a job, and cannot find a job as many young Egyptian who are jobless. He spends his insomniac nights in coffee shops with people that, like him, have no chances in life and ultimately do not have a role in society. The protagonist lives with his mother who silently witnesses her son going mad. The film offers a subtle and contradictory perspective on urban life in Cairo and on contemporary masculinity in a traditional society.

Susanne Kriemann

Ramses Files, 2006. 4-channel-slide-installation.

The layers of history embedded in the city of Cairo are themes in the work Ramses Files, produced by Susanne Kriemann after a residency in Cairo in 2006. In the 4-channel-slide-installation Kriemann shows the transformations of the megalopolis through a collection of archival images mixed with recent images of the pharaonic statue of Ramses II and its surroundings from the 1950s till today. In the Nasser era the Ramses II statue symbolized the roots of the Egyptian nation and was set in front of Cairo’s central station where it stayed until, in 2006, it was moved due to preservation issues. In Kriemann’s work, the statue represents a sort of paradigm that remains immutable over the years, in contrast to the ever-changing city and its inhabitants. The images are from various newspaper and private archives.

Maha Maamoun

Cairoscapes, 2003. Photo series.

Nature is present everywhere in the city; if not literally, then figuratively. The fleeting floral patterns on pedestrians’ clothes are in this photo series substitutes for nature in an urban environment, a point of rest in the midst of the harshness of the city. Adopting the panoramic format of cityscapes, Cairoscapes are intimate, subtly ironic, depictions of Cairo, eye-level landscapes focussing on the quotidian and the fragmentary, rather than on the encompassing overview.

Chritoph Oertli

Cairo, 2006. Video.

Christoph Oertli’s video Cairo shows a person walking very slowly through the bustling city, quiet suburbs and peaceful rooftops of Cairo. As the districts change, so does the walker who continues his measured pace while observing the world around him without interaction. The environmental sound changes from noisy traffic to silence. Each person is related to one location, filmed from different viewpoints. All single movements of the persons are linked in the editing as if it were one long, sequential movement. This clearly structured form gives the artist the possibility to realize a personal view of the city of Cairo, putting in relation the characteristics of loud, fast and crowded to their opposite of calm, slow and empty. A combination of cinematographical and documentary aspects underlines the living conditions in the city. The video was produced during an artist residency in Cairo.

Hany Rashed

People of Cairo, 2006. Photo series and installation.

The playful, humorous installation by Hany Rashed is a small-scale portrait of the streets of Cairo and the varied humanity that populates the mega city. The installation is composed of hundreds of paper figures, mounted on cardboard and fixed to the floor of the gallery space. The figures enact different situations and actions common in Cairo streets: people walking, selling stuff, crossing the road; women veiled and unveiled; men wearing gallabeyas or in uniform – the omnipresent Cairo policemen; donkeys, bikes and people with objects; people protesting, people carrying things around. For the photo series, Rashed re-places and then photographs the figures in the Cairo environment. Through his work, Rashed evokes the movement and rhythms of urban life in the Egyptian capital.

Katarina Sevic

News From Nowhlere, 2008. Installation.


The texts in the composition News From Nowhereare extracts taken from a visionary novel, “News from Nowhere”, written by William Morris, British artist, designer and writer. The book was published in 1890s and is an example of utopian vision informed and inspired by radical socialist ideas and science fiction.The narrator of the book, wakes up one morning in the future in an unfamiliar society which knows little of its past and excludes heritage from its affairs. During his walk through the city he contemplates whether there is any path to radical change other than forgetting the past.
Presented in the form of an associative storyboard, Šević’s News From Nowhere refers to the relation between possible social change and its effects on a city (city heritage). Šević does not aim to refer directly to the original message of the novel, but rather seeks to re-appropriate the text in combination with images to generate a different understanding of utopian thinking in relation to the social reality of a contemporary mega city.
News From Nowhere was initiated in and inspired by Cairo but is not site-specific. (Text: Katarina Šević)

Randa Shaath

Under the Same Sky: Rooftops of Cairo, 2002/2003. Photo series.

Cairo rooftops no longer resemble the description in the Naguib Mahfouz novel, “Palace Walk”, set in the early 1900’s. Back then, houses were designed and built to accommodate one extended family; rooftops were an area of privacy. High-rise buildings of reinforced concrete first appeared in the 1920’s. Day-use laundry and service rooms for individual apartments were built on the roof, but no one usually lived there except the concierge. Nationalization of private property started in the 1960’s and waves of immigrants from the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt moved to Cairo hoping for a better life. Relatives joined their extended families living on the rooftops where rents were low and a new generation of rooftops dwellers grew. Today, rooftop dwellers have little privacy as they share the bathrooms and the public areas. The rooftop has become a new kind of community. The people who live on the rooftops are different from the people who live in the buildings themselves; neither the residents nor the pedestrians on the street below have any idea what goes on above them. This unique phenomenon is one extra detail in the complexities of a city of 17 million people.


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