Setting: A rooftop that looks like a spacecraft. A glowing staircase with orange light. A repository of clutter. A jungle of satellite dishes. Figures appear. Women dressed in black pose within scenes of their own creation.
They are the Cairo Bats, a collective of female artists who gather to create staged photographs. For Act 1: The Roof (2015), their recent project at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), the Cairo Bats presented a sequence of performative interventions that tackled the multifaceted potential of urban structures. It’s not the first time that artists working in Cairo chose the city and its landscape as points of departure. Since the early 2000s, with the rise of independent art spaces such as Townhouse Gallery and CIC, the complex relationships that humans have with the city have been a recurring exhibition theme. (Established in 2004, CIC is one of the few independent platforms in Egypt that is entirely dedicated to image-based practices.)
In a city of twenty-two million people, where up to 40 percent of the population live in some kind of informal housing, residents sometimes face no other choice but to move to the rooftops. As a result, the roof has emerged as one of Cairo’s many urban typologies. Driven by the postindependence euphoria of industrialization and centralization, and coupled with a lack of basic housing and parallel urban planning, the city morphed into organic, urban forms ranging from squatter settlements to repurposed rooftops. And, in that parallel urban landscape, we encounter a unique experience of urban life—an experience central to the work of the Cairo Bats.
In Act 1: The Roof, some of the collective’s images are purely scenographic, using the existing elements of a space to show its many visual possibilities. The intense contrasts between light and shadow, and multiple degrees of darkness, almost reach a baroque chiaroscuro in one work where spotlights are used to pick out the presence of three figures against the dark rooftop. Other images show more complex interventions and appropriations, as in the juxtaposition of satellite dishes with domestic interiors and household objects.
But the unusual presence of the artists—either in person or in the symbolic gesture of clothing left behind—highlights the absence of women in the urban landscape of Cairo. It’s a radical or even dangerous intervention. The presence of women in public spaces has been one of the most contested social phenomena in Egypt in the past three decades. Since independence in 1952, the increased involvement and visibility of women has been accompanied by a serious backlash from the conservative guardianship of a patriarchal system that dominates the country’s social fabric. The roof, being a liminal space somewhere between private and public, is a critical stage on which to dramatize these tensions, and to consider how and where women should be visible and active.
The imaginative possibilities of what a rooftop can hold reach further in the group’s images of vegetation. Cairo is not known for its many green spaces, and the dire lack of greenery is part of the ecological makeup of the city’s landscape. With close-up photographs of flowers, shrubs, and leafy greens, the Cairo Bats divert our imagination to the fantastical.
Act 1: The Roof becomes a visual exploration of places fraught with disorder, informality, organic forms, and the marginalized of society. The play on darkness and light, the ambiguous choreography, and the bodies that situate themselves in relationship to the city itself, as well as to its history both past and present, make for an artistic vision that confronts Cairo, investigating possibilities of engagement beyond the limits of chaos.
Ismail Fayed, a writer and editor based in Cairo, is the associate editor of Arab Art in the Twentieth Century: Primary Documents, forthcoming from the Museum of Modern Art in 2017.
Aperture online magazine, New York.
A group of female photographers, Cairo Bats (Khafafeesh El-Qahira), display their work in an exhibition at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), titled “Act 1: The Roof,” the first outcome of their two-year collaboration.
On display are works by six Cairo-based artists — Mai El-Shazly, Yvonne Buchheim, Magdalena Kallenberger, Hagar Masoud, Nadia Mounir and Omneia Naguib — who have taken street photography to a new level, quite literally, and ascended to the rooftops of buildings around Cairo to stage a series of pensive, whimsical, and purposely playful photographs.
The photographs are akin to scenes from a conceptual play, one focused on the ideas of absence and presence, toying with visibility and invisibility, and meditating on the essence of public spaces while subtly touching on gender issues.
Act 1: The Roof presents a variety of photos from the adventures of the Cairo Bats. In some shots the photographers are present as subjects, in others they are absent. There are many wide shots that take the whole scene in, and a few medium shots that frame a corner with plants. There are night shots of rooftop gardens that seem to glow effervescently, and others taken in broad daylight with just a barren roof peppered with satellite dishes, the backdrop of the city rising behind.
They are all scenes from what seems to be a parallel universe, familiar yet unacquainted, part of the urban scape, yet having a different set of rules, or maybe not needing any rules.
Ahram Online speaks with three of the Cairo Bats group, going behind the scenes of Act 1: The Roof.
A stage above street level
Cairo Bats formed quite organically two years ago when the group began meeting for photo-walks around the city during weekends, upon the initiative of Yvonne Buchheim, a German artist and educator.
“Since I first moved to Egypt, I wanted to start a collaborative female group,” Buchheim, currently teaching in the arts and culture programme at the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS), tells Ahram Online.
“I met some of the Cairo Bats members in a course of art philosophy, and we delved into discussions about what art can do in society, and how maybe art doesn’t travel; what works someplace might not work in another,” she says.
As these theoretical questions came to forefront, the group tried to collaborate on something that tackles their questions in an indirect and subtle way. However, shooting on the streets of Cairo came with its hindrances.
“It was very daring, and we had all these people looking at us, like we had this audience on the spot,” she says
For both Mounir and El-Shazly, it was not only this pressure, but something that was missing — like their experience wasn’t fulfilling enough — that led them to appreciate what rooftops offered.
“Shooting on the streets we ended up being bound by some social aspect, in how we act and how we dress, for example,” Mounir says
“When we went to the rooftops, we could focus on making images, rather than the surrounding difficulties when we tried to make them on the streets,” Buchheim adds.
The first roof they explored was that of Zamalek’s Nile Sunset Annex gallery.
“It was unplanned, and we liked how we found a lot to play with. Some roofs had interesting objects like a couch, a rug, a bucket or a ladder, while others only had satellite dishes. Its all based on improvisation, and what we found were like props to a play,” El-Shazly says.
As such, their photos are staged, with the roof like a theatre and them as performers. The images are born in response to their surroundings and from their interaction with the space around them.
“We look around seeing what is in the space, what is there to play with, what can we turn into a suggested narrative,” Buchheim explains.
Their rooftop escapades led them across Cairo, shooting in different areas, including El-Moqattam, Downtown, Garden City and Zamalek.
“We would always ask permission first, to access the roofs, and generally it went smoothly,” adds Shazly.
“It helped to know someone in the building, to allow us access. Each time one of us had the mission to get us a rooftop,” Mounir says.
Buccheim comments that: “There were some hilarious moments, we were this group carrying these cameras and big lights, and the porters were totally suspicious. To me, that act of trying and walking Downtown, with all equipment and lights and clothes, is like an act of defiance.”
Traces of presence
“When we looked at our photos, we found that the roof was a space where we were still connected to the city and very much part of it, while being partially unseen,” Mounir says.
This play on absence and presence became one of the main undercurrents in their work, and comes up in their photos in many different ways.
One of the direct examples is in two photos placed next to each other, both taken at night depicting the same scene. In one of them, the Cairo Bats are sitting on the chairs around the table, in the other the chairs are empty and only a glass of water implies that someone was once there.
Physically, they appear in many of the photos, while in others pieces of clothes or objects are placed to represent a group member who wasn’t there that day.
While commenting on one photo Buchheim points to “a faint shadowy light on the left. It is a result of the slow shutter and the lights we were carrying. It’s like a ghost. Whenever there is a light there is a person, or a trace of a person. So sometimes a person is there but you can’t see them,” Buchheim says.
In the shots were they don’t appear at all, their presence is also felt, marked by the photograph itself which acts as proof of their existence in that time and place.
“In the selection process for the exhibition we tried to pick those that play on absence and presence, as well as those with interesting compositions,” El-Shazly says.
The conceptual aspects shaped up more firmly as the group began preparing for the exhibition.
“At some point we got stuck. We stopped sometime in November, then we decided to hold the exhibit to help us look at the photos from a new angle and get feedback,” Mounir clarifies.
Through the process of sorting the images, they began to understand and explore more angles in their work, fine-tuning what they wanted to say through it.
This was a result of their collective opinions, as well as the input of Andrea Thal, CIC’s curator and artistic director, who helped them wring out more from their pool of photos.
According to Buchheim, “Ninety-five percent of our photos were self-portraits, where we place the camera and shoot ourselves, and we had thought these were our main work. Yet Thal selected just a handful of those and chose lots of images of details, like the plants, and many empty images of just the satellites, photos that showed the surrounding space on the roof.”
Although the self-portraits are more fresh and original in subject matter, juxtaposing these with the “empty” images and details presents an interesting contrast and serves to underscore the playfulness and exploration that is at the heart of the group’s dynamics.
While their night shots also reinforced this play on invisibility — the darkness concealing things while revealing others — it was also the first inspiration for the group’s name, as they began shooting more frequently at night.
“Bats are also present in high places and trees, just like we are in high places, on the tops of buildings,” El-Shazly notes.
The nocturnal flying creatures are hidden in plain sight, and more than once crossed paths with the photographers.
“While taking one of the photos, the one with the purple flower, there were like 50 bats that flew off right after we took the shot. They aren’t visible in the photo, but they must have been there and flew because of our lights and flash,” Buchheim says.
The six photographers collaborated in all aspects of their project, from framing the shots, discussing them and making suggestions, to writing the exhibition statement.
“We decided together on the wide shots, and the idea of the roof, but each one of us had something different, a personal reason or vision that drove her to taking photographs and to join the group,” El-Shazly says, not without pointing to an element of challenge. “The roof is a struggle, but it is also freedom and strength. The idea that you have this alternative space other than the street that is semi-public, with more freedom to roam.”
Mounir was reluctant to work in a group as suggested to her by Buchheim. “I work alone, and didn’t know how I would work in collaboration. But then this became the most interesting part for me — how we could find a way to work together to set up and compose a photo.”
Buchheim for her part sees that, “Collaboration brings things you can’t predict, and creates a situation of exchange and opportunity for all sides to learn from each other.”
To her, the project is also fuelled with a feminist charge, although based on the exhibition statement they chose not place this aspect in the forefront while presenting their project.
“For me, it’s absolutely crucial for it to be a women’s group, and speaking for myself, I would say I’m a feminist and interested in feminist issues, but we really vary in the group on how we see this, so I can’t speak for everyone,” says Buchheim.
“I think that we all enjoy that we are women and there’s a bond, closeness, and a type of strength that comes from knowing we achieved and undertook this project. It says a lot about Cairo as well, that as women we did these staged photographs. We are declaring a presence that I feel is needed in Cairo,” she adds.
Buchheim also realises, however, that it is not necessary for the photographers to state this feminist aspect and visibly declare it for it to be felt.
“Maybe we should withdraw a little bit to leave space for people to think. If you say it out loud it becomes this verbal discussion that divides people very quickly. The less we say and leave the pictures to speak for themselves, maybe the stronger the work can be.”
It is still unplanned where Cairo Bats intend to pursue their adventures with Act 2. However, their current body of work is a poignant balance between depth and a sprightly spirit of raw exploration.
The exhibition opened on 15 March and runs until 9 April.
CIC, 22 Abd El-Khalek Tharwat Street, Downtown Cairo.
ahramonline journal, Egypt, Saturday 2 Apr 2016.