Between Japan and Egypt: Art materialises from waste in Downtown Cairo workshop
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A fish made of toys and commercial bottles, a population made of cardboard, swings made of tires and a maze made of window shutters, are just some of the whimsical creations artists participating in From Rags to Riches (FRTR) are working on at The Ismailia Garage in Downtown Cairo’s Kodak passage.
FRTR is a long-term project for up-cycled public art in Cairo, initiated by Baad El-Bahr for Cultural Development (BEBA) and curated by Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art. The participating artists were selected after submitting proposals that envision beautifying the city with public artwork produced from repurposed waste.
The large fish by Medhat Benzoher was what led them to Japanese artist Hideaki Shibata, one of the founding artists of Yodogawa Technique, who happens to have a portfolio full of fish (among other things) adorned in all types of trash.
Shibata was invited by FRTR to help the artists with his decade of experience. On his second day in Egypt, last Monday, Shibata gave a talk at the Japanese Foundation, discussing some of the adventures, problems, and triumphs of working with the unwanted material of different cities and countries.
The fish bike and other tales from Japan
Yodogawa Technique is an art unit named after the river in Okawa, Japan, where Shibata and his partner Kazuya Matsunaga started their first project by using the river’s trash as material for artwork.
“We started by having fun, exploring and experimenting with any material we found, rather than trying to solve the problem of garbage, although eventually it also became that too,” Shibata said in his talk.
“As we met people around the river banks, we asked them to teach us things. One man tried to teach us fishing, which we failed at, so we decided to make our own fish.”
That first fish was made of black scrap metal, and had a bike as a supporting skeleton, making whoever rode it appear to be riding a fish.
Since then, their fish have grown to be bigger public sculptures, about six metres wide and four metres high.
The fish type depends on the place and native species, and the material they find. They made a fish from fans, and another from tin cans.
A fish Shibata made from bamboo in Indonesia is covered in the plastic wraps of sweets, abundant in the city’s trash dump.
“The villagers there were very skilled at handling bamboo, not beginners like us. In the end, the whole town worked with us and helped us create our project,” Shibata says.
Another time a community got involved in Yodogawa Technique’s project was for another fish sculpture at the Uno Triennial (2010).
Because of weathering, the permanent installation needs to be changed every three years.
“The people in the neighbourhood got us their trash to use. They started saving old things that they thought would be suited for the piece since they were familiar with the sculpture,” Shibata says.
Not all their works are as well maintained as the fish at Uno. In fact, works are often short-lived and the artist says many of them end up destroyed or wither away.
“I just wanted to use the things that people considered as useless, to make something that can let them think for a while, even if it doesn’t last long. When people see trash made into artwork, maybe they could rethink that it’s not really waste,” Shibata says.
Like Yodogawa Technique, FRTR’s aim is not recycling per se, but rather repurposing.
Cairo’s ragged riches
Shibata is helping Egyptian artist Hatem Mosa weld metal for the skeleton of a car, his project for FRTR.
“There is an abandoned tunnel near the ring road that I wanted to beautify. I could have made animals, for example, but I was more interested in making cars to be placed there,” Mosa tells Ahram Online.
Mosa’s corner in the Garage has three cars, each with a different angle; a front half, a side profile, and a three-quarter profile, to be installed onto a wall.
Shibata and Mosa are working on the biggest of them, the three-quarter profile. It has a Mercedes logo at the front, though the body and design is that of an Audi.
They work with what they find. “And it’s the same country of origin,” Mosa adds with a smile.
The Mercedes/Audi body will be covered in tire tubes, while the other two cars will be covered in plastic bottle caps.
Mosa wears a t-shirt decorated with pieces of sackcloth he has sewn on, the same he is using for parts of the car. He is an experienced sculptor who has also worked as a scenographer with theatre director Khaled Galal.
Yet according to Shibata, the Egyptian artists working with waste material are not always as experienced, and many have difficulty realising their ideas because of this.
“We (Yodogawa Technique) have the same problem, being surrounded by lots of material but little knowledge on how to handle it. Sometimes the work is even dangerous, but we learned from experience. It is a problem, but it’s also the exciting part,” Shibata says.
In another corner of the garage Rania Atef is gluing magazine cutouts to a larger-than-life chair missing one leg.
“We’re all familiar with that broken chair that we keep holding on to and somehow keep using,” Atef says.
She explains that a pile of broken chairs will make the third leg. To complement it, she is also working on a coffee pot big enough for people to sit in — both pieces iconic of Egypt’s coffee shop (Ahwa) culture.
Three other artists, Azza Ezzat, Florence Mohy, and Hend Moaaz, are collaborating on a project made of old window shutters and used wood boards. The shutters stand vertically and form a maze, painted and decorated with pieces of cloth.
Visiting Dutch artist Daan Dijkstra was helping on the maze project in July.
“The idea was already there; the maze about life that starts from childhood to adulthood where it gets more complex, and you can look back from there at life. I was able to help in different ways, from discussing the work to finding materials at Sabtiyah market,” Dijkstra told Ahram Online.
It is meant to be bigger, more than the garage can take, requiring artists to finish the work where it will be displayed, or make it in several parts to be installed on site.
Gabriela Esposito, from Baad El-Bahr Foundation, explains that the permits for public display are not easy to acquire.
“We were going to display the maze at Al-Azhar Park, but in the end they refused for safety reasons,” she tells Ahram Online.
Kamila Bassiouny is working on a project titled The Great Depression, making around 20 large figures from cardboard, while Afrodite El-Seesy is using melted glass bottles for an installation titled The Flow.
"When I got there the garage was empty, with people still getting to know each other. It quickly became a space where all the artists and volunteers are helping each other like a big team,” Dijkstra says.
According to Esposito, FRTR also involves a number of artists working on projects in their own spaces outside of the garage, including Iraqi artist Okeil, street artist Ammar Abo Bakr, and sculptor Ahmed Askalany, who is making his signature Hippopotamuses from waste material.
From a backgammon table made from patchwork, to a butcher’s table made of bones, the range of material used in FRTR projects is anything but limited.
“Every place has it’s own native trash. You can tell a lot about a city from its waste. Even if it’s not the side the city wants to show,” Shibata says.
From his bag he extracts a horseshoe he picked up from the Pyramids earlier. However, since he hasn’t spent much time in Cairo Shibata says he can’t yet tell much about the city.
Perhaps the variety of materials in FRTR projects speaks for itself, telling more about Cairo than Shibata can see.
“Clean countries hide their trash, and it feels fake to me. I think that my work is a way of being truthful, and showing that where there are people there will be trash,” said Shibata.
The artists will continue working in the open atelier in the garage through September, and an exhibition will display their works (or parts of them) in October at the Swiss Foundation.