DUBAI: “I feel like I never get tired of drawing scenes in Cairo,” says Nora Zeid, illustrator, designer and visual artist, who is kicking off her first solo exhibition. “It is visually rich, it is high, it overwhelms your senses in so many different ways. It is a great city for an artist to explore. ”
The young Egyptian happily discusses his hometown with all its madness and weaknesses, despite having lived as an expat in Dubai for most of his life.
Do you know what one of my favorite things is? These are facades of residential buildings, ”she says. “The architects who designed these buildings probably intended them to be consistent, and all balconies were designed to look the same. But when you look at the facade of a residential property in Cairo, each apartment does its own thing. Someone has a bunch of plants, someone has painted their balcony blue, another has decided to close their balcony to create an extra room. There is this strange rhythm for every person who does his own thing; of that everyone is unapologetic is himself. ”
For an artist, this is incredibly exciting, says Zeid, who depicts her hometown and its often overlooked intricacies in a new exhibition at Tashkeel in Dubai using digital and hand-drawn illustrations. “There are layers and layers of detail and texture, and it’s extremely fun to translate it into black and white illustrations. Because I take all this complexity and reduce it to something that is a little visually digestible. ”
In “Cairo Illustrated: Stories from Heliopolis”, which runs at Tashkeel until October 23, it has meant that there are freezing moments in space and time, often using photographs taken either by herself or by family and friends. These images allow Zeid to notice small details she would otherwise have missed, such as a cat sleeping in the corner of a room or a pile of chairs collecting dust.
“The illustrations are really spatial,” she explains. “Everything in the foreground is usually very detailed, but as I move further into the background, I abstract my lines. I retain some form of structural complexity, but as buildings, objects, and people fade into the distance, they become more abstract. I try to repeat the feeling I get when I stand in a busy street; maintain all the details without necessarily giving away what every single thing is. ”
The exhibition, which marks the end of the 2020 edition of Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Program, has been driven by Zeid’s desire to understand her hometown. As an expat, she felt alienated from Cairo and often judged the verdict – over the traffic, the pollution and the many daily challenges that its inhabitants face. “It’s a friendlier approach to yourself and to the city to try to understand what it’s like, rather than judging,” she says. So she set about exploring the city, its neighborhoods, and its people before narrowing her research to Heliopolis. There she collected stories and recorded memories, took photographs as visual cues and immersed herself in the sensory congestion that is Cairo.
One of the stories is the one about her grandmother who has visited a restaurant called Chantilly for the last 40 years. Another is by architect Omniya Abdel Barr. Zeid remembers being confused by the empty ornamental circles she saw on the facades of buildings in Korba as a child. Years later, she discovered that they were blazons that mimicked Mamluk architecture – only they lacked the Arabic script that would identify the building’s protector, because they were built by Europeans who could not understand Arabic.
Taken together, the collected stories make up a deconstructed graphic novel that is 32 pages long, says Zeid, though she hopes to add “more memories, more details and more stories. Because I believe that these stories are the substance of our heritage ”. It is the concept of heritage – or what constitutes heritage – that informs a lot about the exhibition.
“When it comes to how we value our heritage in Egypt, it is often linked to tourism rather than our identity or trying to understand our history better,” says Zeid, who likes that her work is accessible and educated from American University of Sharjah. “Our heritage is protected and secured for tourists, and only our ancient heritage – Pharaonic, Islamic and Coptic – has been taken care of. All of this made me question what we consider to be heritage, how we value it, and how we take care of it. I wanted to explore how we value everything that is old. How about newer, more modern spaces? What about places like Chantilly, which are part of our heritage because it is present in our collective memory? ”
Such questions have allowed Zeid to examine how tourism, infrastructure, and changes in the urban landscape have affected the way Cairenes defines and interacts with their heritage. How new infrastructure projects disrupt urban harmony and how the value of built heritage is strongly linked to age.
She has not confronted this topic alone. Egyptologist Monica Hanna is quoted in one of the illustrated postings, while Mahy Mourad, an architect in Cairo, an independent researcher and interdisciplinary designer, has contributed a short essay to the exhibition’s printed catalog. Abdel Barr has also written about places and memories. No wonder Lisa Ball-Lechgar, deputy director of Tashkeel, says the exhibition is a ‘timely commentary on the ongoing debate around urbanization, socio-economics, heritage and belonging’.
“I am constantly moving between personal experiences and more general reflections on how we take care of our heritage and how we value it,” says Zeid, who was mentored throughout the Critical Practice program by designer, researcher and educator Ghalia Elsrakbi and Hala Al -Ani, co-founder of Möbius Design Studio. “The shift between small and large image, personal and general, makes the subject accessible. And I want people who visit the exhibition to reflect on their own experience and how they can be linked to their own heritage.
“I really want people to think beyond what was (taught to) us, in terms of what we define as heritage and what we consider worth preserving. It’s not just how old a building or monument is. It is not only if it has religious significance. A residential building from the 1950s can be as important as a monument from the 14th or 15th century because it is all part of our history. ”