Generously sprinkled throughout Cairo’s streets there exists an understated art form – that of kitsch art, which has over the past two decades witnessed an ironic revival within postmodern communities around the world.
Kitsch art has long been subliminally established as a prevalent norm to shop owners, taxi drivers and local advertisers, inspiring a group of Cairo artists who have developed a fondness for it.
“Cairo is like a kitsch art museum,” says Abdel Razek, a 33-year-old Egyptian-American artist who returned to Cairo after the January uprising. “I could search for days throughout thrift shops in [Brooklyn] for ironic T-shirts or stickers and items to make collages, but nothing compares to the obscure peculiarity of things you pick up from a simple stroll in Cairo.”
Since the 1980s, with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, postmodernism has introduced a sense of humility into art, suggesting that one’s expression is not entirely complete without the counter response to that expression. In terms of high art, that counter response might often be likened to kitsch, or vice versa.
This has resulted in a blurring of the lines between established academic criteria for high art and idiosyncratic forms of expression – a feat that has increased, no doubt, due to the internet and artists’ decreasing need for third parties to represent their work.
Many Cairo artists now believe that this attitude is much-needed in Egypt in order to embrace the varied divergences of local tastes, as well as reintroduce honest expression into Egyptian art.
“We need to move away from the 'Egyptian on the donkey' stereotypical art pieces and imitation [Banksy homage] art,” says 27-year-old Hassan Hassan, a local sketch artist who enjoys incorporating kitsch ideas and colors into his drawings. “Sure, we’ve got this revolution art thing going on, but that’ll get old fast. If you look around Cairo, what you see – aside from people, sorrow, revolution, etc. – is fluorescent taxis, bobbing dog heads, cliched hair salon pictures and misspelled branding; it's rich, hilarious and beautiful at the same time.
“If art is supposed to be a mirror, then maybe it’s a good idea to start reflecting the beauty of Cairo more appropriately,” says Hassan.
Hassan adds, however, that due to Cairo artists' fear of being perceived as tacky or contrived, much of the essential kitsch nature of Cairo is blotted out in favor of meeting perceived criteria of what art is supposed to be.
Artistic objectives aside, Cairo does thrive as a playful museum for kitsch art, whether it be T-Rex headrests in taxis or solecistic sentences on bumper stickers. Postmodern artists abroad might take on kitsch art with a premeditated spirit – but in Egypt, that spirit might be more genuine.
“I put these things in my cab because I think they’re cool and I want to attract customers that like them too,” says Mohamed Fawaz, a taxi driver whose cab is filled with sentimental art illuminated by a spinning disco ball. “I want my cab to be full of life and color because Cairo is so brown, and it doesn’t represent who we really are.”
Fawaz is just one of thousands of cab drivers around Cairo who want to express themselves through whatever means available.
Another example of such expression is Ahmed Tarek, a Maadi barber who has covered his shop – inside and out – with 1980s photographs of American actors because he wishes to promote his “open mindedness and skills at cutting different hair styles.”
Artist Abdel Razek adds that it is the genuineness of the intentions and tastes behind these expressions that is so reflective of how loving and uncomplicated Egyptian people really are, and that embracing kitsch into Egyptian art would serve to dissolve socioeconomic barriers and raise the potential for an artistic community.
Others, however, disagree with there being any merit whatsoever in embracing Cairo’s kitsch inclinations.
“Eighty percent of Egyptians are tasteless,” says Ahmed Fathy, a taxi driver whose cab was entirely clean and void of visual paraphernalia. “They paint their lights black because they think it’s cool, but then how do we see them when they’re backing up? This mentality is embarrassing.”
Artist Karim al-Kholaidy also argues that “tacky items and poor tastes need to be kept separate from the world of art; that is what makes art special and gives it its importance.”
But those who want to embrace Cairo's kitsch argue that these sentiments represent part of the problem with the artistic community because they seek to identify themselves as separate from their surroundings; and that, because such a large percentage of Egyptians adhere to and enjoy such expression, incorporating it intelligently could serve to hold up a much-needed mirror to allow Cairo society to come together and move forward through art.
Karim Molyneux-Berry, a British-Egyptian conceptual and visual artist, said he'd like to see kitsch art displayed next to "high art" displays.
“Imagine how cool it would be to go to the Townhouse Gallery to find a display of 10 taxi cabs overloaded with kitsch pictures and phrasings amongst Egyptian – Pharaonic and modern – items of grandiose and seriousness," he says.
“It’s a dichotomy of everyday Cairene existence that is enchanting and for some reason remains artistically diluted and embarrassed. You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, you build a new model that makes the old one obsolete. And perhaps that’s what needs to happen,” he says.