The Ring Road

Hunting for Art

on the Ring Road, 2020

 

By Ahmed Naji

 

1

At the age of 16, I moved out of my parents’ house. I moved to Sixth of October City, all by myself, to be closer to university. I lived in a distant, working-class neighborhood where rent was cheap. Throughout my first year there, there was nothing there but a small grocery shop and a filthy local diner. There was nothing and no one there. 

 

It was the year 2001. Sixth of October was literally a “desert”. 

If I remember well, one could drive for kilometers on end with nothing there on the right side of the road except for sand and dying plants. They would call it the Eighth District, but all I could see was a solitary district with no sign of life. 

 

There were even no taxis in October, only light trucks, and you had to negotiate with the boys from Al Fayoum and Beni Souif driving them to take you wherever you wanted. If there were more than two of us, the rest had to ride in the trunk. 

 

Each morning, I would walk for almost 1.5 kilometers, before reaching a spot where I could use the mass transportation means available in the city then: a light truck covered with metal sheets, with benches on both sides. If I remember well, the fare was half a pound. 

 

My first days there were dominated by a sense of isolation and an eternal repetition that was of a poetic nature. I went to university, came back to my apartment, took the food out of the fridge and heated it, sat in my room thinking of ways to kill time.

I used to gaze out of the window or the balcony for hours without a glimpse of a single soul or movement. There was nothing there but parked cars and dim buildings. Most of the buildings there were uninhabited. In my building, there was only one other apartment with residents; I once saw a middle-aged man walking out of its door. 

 

At the time, I was also reading “Brothers Karamazov”, an unintentional and unconscious choice which triggered a long episode of depression and sent me to a very dark place. At some point, I started doubting everything around me; so much that I started putting rocks around the parked car tires just to make sure that those cars were actually used and they had owners who lived there. I needed to be certain that they were real and not merely parts of a set décor for some sort of a nightmarish experiment that I was being subjected by hidden forces from up above or way down below.  

 

I look back to those days now, and I see them as they were; a mixture of nightmares of a teenager journeying through life on his own for the first time - a teenager who thought he was coming to live in Cairo, only to find himself stuck in what resembled a fetal city in formation: the far-from-Cairo Sixth of October City. 

 

2

After two years of roaming through the isolated emptiness of Sixth of October City, I finally had the courage to head to Cairo - the Cairo I knew through art and literature, with its center, the “Downtown”. I didn’t know anyone there. I had no specific destination in mind. So, I roamed the streets alone, but that time I was content to be alone amongst crowded streets amidst people; that never happened in October. Sometimes, I just sat on the pavement or stood in a corner watching the circus and the captivating diversity of the Downtown passersby. 

 

Five years later, I went to an exhibition in “Ard Al Lewa’” which lies between October and Downtown; right between the city and its margins. The “Black dots 2008” exhibition was held in a tiny shop on the ground floor of a residential building. The shop walls were covered with wooden planks. And on those planks, there were drawings of people in a state of motion as if they were crossing the street or leaving a building, but here they were stuck in the void. 

 

That was the first exhibition by “Amr El Kafrawy” for me to attend. We met for a short interview in which he told me about his work approach: sitting in some “internet café” overlooking Talaat Harb square in Downtown area, getting out a small camera while watching people passing by the square and spying on them, and then secretly taking photographs of them. Afterwards, he drew on those photographs to put them back in a state of motion. He turned them into black shadows crossing the empty wooden planks covering the walls of “Artellewa” gallery.

 

Those shadows Amr created formed an old man walking around with a backpack on his bent back, two lovers whispering, and a woman struggling for balance carrying a heavy plastic bag in her right hand. You’d also see the famous Cairo street cats and weasels grown in size in a manner that would make you think of dinosaurs. There were people parting from loved ones, friends meeting, people lost in the crowd, and an old man staring under his feet in astonishment.

 

As we talked, we drifted from the exhibition to the Cairo we loved despite everything - Cairo as we saw it; loud, crowded, and alive. Amr saw Cairo as a tense city full of life, people, and movement, and that tension is what pressures people until they become nothing but ever shrinking black dots. 

On the contrary, I, the village boy, was still thirsty for all that noise, tension, and mayhem. I still wanted a taste of every pleasure and pain there was to experience. 

On the next day, I went to Amr’s working spot - that internet café. I rented a computer and sat there staring out of the window for an hour, paying no attention whatsoever to the computer screen. As I watched the passersby, I noticed that no one was smiling; everybody was wearing their fatigued masks or they were, in fact, sick. Those were the people of the city, supposedly. But they were all heading somewhere, just like in Amr’s drawings. And that was when it hit me for the first time: If all those people were passing by, then where exactly was the city? Is the city that place we reside and sleep in? Or is it what we cross to survive?

 

I only got to know Cairo when it was on its deathbed. I’m talking about the modern Cairo which was redesigned and expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is that Cairo which summed up all the different controversies, deformities, and achievements born from the attempts to create modern Egypt. 

The neighborhoods of Cairo stretching over in proximity reflect the urban sprawl that took over Cairo for the past 200 years. And at the same time, they reflect the beliefs and dreams of the Egyptians who passed away. 

It was that Cairo; “the city of a thousand minarets”, “wonder of the East”, the city that woke up one day to the sounds of the stallions and cannons of the French pointed at his heart: Al Azhar mosque. Later on, the urban sprawl continued, and Cairo stretched over the swamps allowing the space for Downtown to emerge. It was an architectural replication of western modernity. Downtown was designed to resemble Paris. It was planned for as the residential destination for the European colonial elite that came to rule Egypt. It was designed to become the new capital of modern Egypt, while they left ancient Cairo to rot on its deathbed. “Downtown” was the result of those attempts that continued for years. And afterwards, in the twentieth century, the Effendi class multiplied in numbers, and so the middle class carved out new urban areas and that was when the districts of Manyal, Abbasiyah and Dokki first appeared. 

 

And with the establishment of the military republic, the districts of Nasr City and Imbaba exploded into being. This random urban explosion continued until the nineties when the city was surrounded by an asphalt belt: The Ring Road. 

The Ring Road is a witness to that experiment that continued for almost 7 years, and ended with new cities ever trying to escape from Cairo’s tight grip without avail – ironically, one of them was even given the name of “New Cairo”, as if nothing comes after Cairo. 

 

After the first decade of the new millennium, the authorities unofficially announced the death of Khedivial Cairo. The modernization plans and projects openly addressed a need to move the ministries and governmental bodies to Sixth of October City, which was no longer the desert it used to be. Sixth of October City was then destined to become the new capital, but not for long. After the January 25 revolution, the compass changed, pointing towards the far East, and the New Administrative Capital project appeared. By leaps and bounds, the New Capital is almost ready to be fully operational; it’s in the final phase, and once it’s ready, the old Cairo we know will be turned into nothing but a network of roads and bridges, leading only to the New Capital. 

 

4

 

While Amr El Kafrawy was born in Cairo, I come from another city: Al Mansoura. I migrated to the outskirts of Cairo from Mansoura. And for 15 years, I had lived my life torn between Sixth of October and the heart of Cairo. El Kafrawy’s experience was the complete opposite of mine.

 

Amr had spent his childhood in Nasr City – a neighborhood that symbolizes the republic of Egypt like no other. From there, he moved to Downtown where he used to live for years, chasing after his artistic passion.  Downtown is the beating heart of the tense city that has influenced his artwork. An after years of living in the Downtown area, El Kafrawy finally moved to Sixth of October as well. Nevertheless, he still owns a small studio dedicated for work in Downtown. 

 

Geographically speaking, El Kafrawy opted to distance himself from the city. And the tension, energy, and movement in his drawings turned into solid, still buildings and ghosts from the past. The magic fades away with time, and the true nature of the city reveals itself. As time passes by, you discover that the image and history of the city only exist in your imagination, while the grotesque reality hits you right between the eyes. 

 

5

El Kafrawy is not a documentary artist, and his works cannot be considered as mere observations and notes on the city’s tension. His artwork is an extension of his long relationship with the city he deeply loves and is seriously involved with. 

In 2014, El Kafrawy held his exhibition “Like a Mirage”. There was no one passing by the city this time; only the city’s buildings and ruins, and a huge archive of photographs that he bought from an antique photo seller and recycled. He mixed the portraits that go back to the fifties and sixties of the past century with the photographs of the modern buildings. He created faces of the city’s past residents roaming the remains of its present.

 

6

Art is only present off the road. Only copycats and “Kitsch” producers settle for images that highlight the sleeping beauty by the sidewalk. But art precipitates at the bottom and undergoes a long process of filtration and purification of its primary materials. Amr begins his process with a photograph of a generic scene – he considers photography to be a medium that intensifies reality and isolates it from all stimulants. Copycats would take the photograph and re-draw it, showing off all the professional techniques of drawing and coloring, to produce a “Kitsch” photographs that gains a massive number of “Likes”, yet are easily forgotten the next day. But an artist, like El Kafrawy, magnifies the photograph, adjusts, divides, prints and colors it, using a series of refinement, reformation, and experimental techniques. He continues in his process until he captures what’s hidden, even the absent or non-existent that would have never been there if it were not for the artist. 

What we see here is not a portrait of Cairo or its buildings; it’s a portrait of what has no shape. It’s a portrait of that wound, that sadness, that indifference and that suppressed anger boiling deep inside. It’s a portrait of the impact of Cairo and its Ring Road on our souls. 

 

7

Nothing represents Cairo in the last twenty years better than the Ring Road. 

The city that had expanded over hundreds of years with no restriction whatsoever has been enclosed by the Ring Road. Its residents moved to new cities and found themselves in diaspora. Meanwhile, similar in manner to El Kafrawy’s drawings, the remains and ruins of the city and the Ring Road stood still, overlooking each other.   

 8

The artist left again, heading to a new destination. This time he headed to a new country: to icy-cold Canada in the North where he currently lives. With a new look, Amr returns to his city, with a project that seems like a final kiss goodbye, not to Cairo, but to a long artistic experiment that he indulged himself in together with the city: to an experiment that started from photography and printing, then drawing on wood, and ended with creating huge mosaic drawings using shadows and colors. 

 

9

While El Kafrawy continues to use the same techniques in his artwork, this time, contrary to the “Like a Mirage” exhibition, there are no portraits of people from the fifties of the past century; there are no shadows of life in the drawings of this exhibition. He deliberately hid all signs of life while he processed the photographs, during printing, and while drawing. 

 

It is notable how the windows and balconies are dark in most of the drawings. There is no sign of life in these buildings. We cannot even tell if these buildings are complete or still under construction. 

 

A huge number of photographs that were mostly taken on the Ring Road acts as the main pillar of this project. Overlooking the Ring Road, random buildings stand erect on both sides, with nothing but red bricks. In the trench between them and the roadway, small pyramids of garbage are piled up all over the place to create a reflection of the cultural and aesthetic depth of the area. Most of these buildings and apartments are uninhabited; they are left there for when the sons of their owners grow up to get married in, or were built in a rush when the building materials were cheap. They are an investment for the future which no one knows when it will come.

 

10

Everyone knows it, but it’s always important to remember: Cairo is only beautiful if you manage to escape it, and in El Kafrawy’s drawings. 

 

Nowadays, I remember my first days in October. Dull, lonely, and terrifying as they were, I now catch myself reminiscing about them. No matter how brutal the past is, yearning for the past is part of being human. We yearn for the past and laugh at ourselves ironically for doing so. It’s very similar to that spontaneous smile that popped on my face when I gazed at Amr’s last drawings and noticed how the red and pink colors of the buildings deviate into grey shades in some drawings, how the trees and green scenery come together in others to create vague abstracts, how the tiny leaves come close to each other to create a gigantic network that ties all the dimensions of the scene to one another, or how round frames were used to give the drawings an iconic effect. 

El Kafrawy’s attempt to turn the grotesqueness of Cairo’s architecture and its canned buildings into symmetric drawings is very obvious; he takes everything into consideration: ratios, balance, perspective, the relation between shadow and light, the relation between heaviness and lightness, and accurately calculated shades. His work is a reminder of the landscape paintings of the Renaissance Era, with a significant difference in the approach. Perhaps it’s because now that he lives far away from the city, he is able to yearn for it or search for the beauty buried in its remains.