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From scrap-heap to avant-garde

When it comes to recycled art, the sky’s the limit

Everywhere you look, Cairo provides numerous examples of the vitality and creativity of its roughly eighteen million inhabitants. Its bustling streets are filled with glass bottles in the shape of human and animal figures forged into shisha pipes. A rainbow-colored wooden chair is fixed to metal poles to make a children’s swing.

Egyptians often salvage discarded materials — found on street corners, at book stalls or in old factories and markets — from which to make something beautiful or practical. This tendency to recycle has come to be reflected in the local art scene, with Egyptian artist and cultural historian Huda Lufti pioneering the trend.

Lutfi, who received a PhD in Arab-Muslim Cultural History from Canada’s McGill University in 1983, uses bottle caps, old textbooks, perfume bottles and used toys to create her artistic installations. Unlike conventional collectors, Lutfi gathers materials from both past and present, employing discarded objects and images that offer insight into the way the city’s people think and live.

She describes Cairo’s famous Friday market, which sells used objects ranging from clothes to computers, as “heaven for an artist.” Here, she finds heaps of used toys, which have become central to her work.

“Toys condition children’s thoughts and contribute to forming their identities,” said Lutfi, who has incorporated toys in several of her exhibitions, especially as a means of conveying cultural representations of gender.

The variety of recycled materials available in Cairo has been enriched by the influx of foreign products to the Egyptian market since the 1970s, she explained. These materials, collected from all over the city, can evoke various aspects of Cairo’s history, culture and everyday life.

Eclectic items found at the Friday market, Darb el-Baraberah and Attaba provide unique inspiration for those who take recycled objects as their preferred artistic medium. In many cases, such objects act as cultural references for the viewer, highlighting the unique interplay between their physical characteristics and their socio-economic associations.

Lutfi’s 2008 exhibition, Zan’it al-Sittat (shown at the Third Line gallery in Dubai), explored the restrictions in movement faced by many Egyptian women due to longstanding cultural mores. The exhibition features images of women stuck inside recycled glass bottles — of all shapes, colors and sizes — that were found in Cairo’s Attabah district.

As part of her 2006 Arayes (“Dolls”) exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art in Cairo, Lutfi built a wooden maze to which metal dolls were pinned. Sculpted in the shape of female figures and decorated with oriental patterns, the dolls are forged from tongs commonly used with shisha pipes in Egyptian coffee shops.

The exhibition also featured a wooden floral sculpture fashioned from traditional Egyptian clogs, commonly known as kubkabs. The piece represented the creative metamorphosis of ordinary objects into beautiful and inspiring pieces of art.

Recycled art was first introduced by French artist Marcel Duchamp in 1913 with his piece “Bicycle Wheel,” which was literally that — a bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden stool. His 1917 piece, “Fountain,” consisted of a white porcelain urinal turned upside down.

These pieces challenged previous perceptions of art as a purely aesthetic product of the artist and contributed to the development of several artistic movements in the twentieth century, such as Dadaism, conceptual art and pop art. Pablo Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” formed out of bicycle handlebars and a seat, is another striking example of the genre.

From Santa Fe to Dakar, exhibitions featuring recycled art have become increasingly common in recent years, as young artists turn to novel — and more affordable — media for creative expression.

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