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DUBAI: “I feel like I never tire of drawing scenes from Cairo,” says Nora Zeid, illustrator, designer and visual artist who is embarking on her first solo exhibition. “It’s visually rich, it’s strong, it overwhelms your senses in so many different ways. It’s such an amazing city for an artist to explore.
The young Egyptian happily talks about her hometown, with all of its craziness and weaknesses, despite having lived as an expat in Dubai for most of her life.
“Do you know what is one of my favorite things?” These are the facades of residential buildings, ”she says. “The architects who designed these buildings probably wanted them to be cohesive, with all the balconies designed to look alike. But when you look at the facade of a residential building in Cairo, each apartment does its own thing. Someone has a bunch of plants, someone painted their balcony blue, someone else decided to close their balcony to create an extra room. There’s this weird rhythm where each person does their own thing; of everyone shamelessly being themselves.
For an artist, it’s incredibly exciting, says Zeid, who portrays the city of her birth 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 translating that into black and white illustrations is extremely nice. Because I take all that complexity and reduce it to something that is visually somewhat digestible.
In “Illustrated Cairo: Stories of Heliopolis”, which takes place in Tashkeel through October 23, this meant moments frozen in space and time, often using photographs taken by herself or by his family and friends. These images allow Zeid to notice small details that she would otherwise have missed, such as a cat sleeping in the corner of a room or a pile of chairs gathering dust.
“The illustrations are really spatial,” she explains. “Everything in the foreground is usually very detailed, but as I move away from the background, I abstract my lines. I maintain a sort of structural complexity, but as buildings, objects, and people move away, they become more abstract. I try to replicate the feeling I get when I stand on a busy street; by keeping all the details without necessarily revealing what each thing is.
The exhibit, which marks the conclusion of the 2020 edition of Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Program, was driven by Zeid’s desire to understand his hometown. As an expatriate, she felt remote from Cairo and often made judgments about it, about traffic, about pollution, about the many daily challenges faced by its inhabitants. “It’s a kinder approach to yourself and to the city to try to figure out what it is, rather than passing judgment,” she says. She therefore undertook research on the city, its neighborhoods and its inhabitants, before restricting her research to Heliopolis. There, she gathered stories and recorded memories, took photographs as visual cues and immersed herself in the sensory overload that is Cairo.
One of the stories is that of his grandmother, who has frequented a restaurant called Chantilly for 40 years. Another is that of the architect Omniya Abdel Barr. Zeid recalls being puzzled by the empty ornamental circles she saw on the facades of buildings in Korba as a child. Years later, she discovered that they were coats of arms imitating Mamluk architecture.
Together, the collected stories form a deconstructed 32-page graphic novel, says Zeid, though she hopes to add “more memories, more detail, and more stories.” Because I think these stories are the fabric of our heritage ”. It is the concept of heritage – or what constitutes heritage – that informs much of the exhibition.
“When it comes to how we value our heritage in Egypt, it’s often related to tourism, rather than who we are or trying to better understand our history,” says Zeid, who likes his work to be accessible. and graduated from the American University of Sharjah. “Our heritage is protected and safeguarded for tourists and it is only our ancient heritage – Pharaonic, Islamic and Coptic – that is taken care of. All of this made me wonder about what we consider to be heritage, how we value it and how we take care of it. I wanted to explore how we value all that is old. What about newer and more modern spaces? What about places like Chantilly, which is part of our heritage because it is present in our collective memory?
Questions such as these allowed Zeid to explore how tourism, infrastructure and changes in the urban landscape have influenced the way Cairoans define and interact with their heritage. How new infrastructure projects disrupt urban harmony and how the value of built heritage is strongly related to age.
She did not tackle this subject alone. Egyptologist Monica Hanna is cited in one of the illustrated pages, while Mahy Mourad, Cairo architect, independent researcher and multidisciplinary designer, contributed a short essay to the exhibition’s printed catalog. Abdel Barr also wrote about the places and the memories. No wonder Lisa Ball-Lechgar, Deputy Director of Tashkeel, says the exhibit is a “timely commentary on the ongoing debate around urbanization, socio-economy, heritage and belonging.”
“I constantly move from personal experiences to more general reflections on how we take care of our heritage and how we value it,” explains Zeid, who has been mentored throughout the critical practice program by the designer, researcher and educator Ghalia Elsrakbi and Hala Al. -Ani, the co-founder of Möbius Design Studio. “The passage between the small and the large image, personal and general, makes the subject accessible. And I want visitors to the exhibition to reflect on their own experience and how they might relate to their own heritage.
“I really want people to think beyond what we have been (taught), in terms of what we define as heritage and what we consider to be worth preserving. It is not just the age of a building or a monument. It’s not just if it has religious significance. A residential building from the 1950s can be just as important as a monument from the 14th or 15th century, because it’s all part of our history.