When two Dutch graphic designers were offered a residency at a Cairo art gallery back in January, they had no idea world-changing events were about to rock Egypt to its very core. After Bart de Baets and Sandra Kassenaar finally got there, they immersed themselves in a country where everything was in a state of flux, and produced a poster every day for three weeks reflecting their thoughts, feelings and reactions. We spoke to Bart to find out more about this extraordinary project.
Hi Bart. What was was the atmosphere like in Cairo during those weeks?
It seemed to change daily. Friendly-looking circle discussions suddenly got out of hand and turned into fights, no one really knew who to trust, the curfew changed from 8pm to 9 pm, there were rumors going around that women who weren’t wearing head-scarves could be arrested, the curfew changed again from 9pm to 12 pm and then there was the absence of police and the unclarity of not knowing what the army would do and whose side they were on anyway.
So the atmosphere was somewhat unstable but filled with opinions, stories and curiosity. There was a sense of freedom in the air. Next to all this, life in Cairo kept going. And man, do I love living in Cairo. I think that one of the most important things that keeps the Egyptians on their feet in difficult times like these is their great sense of humor and a curiosity that supplies them with a never-ending buzz of energy.
What were the ideas behind the posters?
For a long while Sandra and I were looking for a way to shape our ideas and the insecure position we found ourselves in. We decided to stop thinking of a best way to collaborate but just focus on each other’s qualities and exploit those. Sandra had collected a big bunch of news paper clippings that dealt with various ways we received the news – she used existing material she found on blogs or in newspapers we bought and wrote or re-wrote articles, placing them as a tabloid-like structure in a newspaper called Recent Events. I had made a big file of sketches for posters that dealt with our daily struggles in this new city.
I made use of slogans and existing icons to create an overlap between my familiar western background and the Arabic world, basically to create recognition for the posters that quite immediately became rather absurd and sometimes hard to read.
What was the reaction like?
Some people simply gave us the casual thumbs-up whenever we presented a new poster, whereas others immediately fired away questions about our latest creation. Some didn’t understand our posters and thought they were difficult to read. Many of the posters made use of icons, like a Mickey Mouse glove or a spinning rainbow from Apple computers, but we also used icons that illustrated the Egyptians or that became iconic due to the events of the last few months.
The posters that made use of more abstract translations, those became our favourites but were the ones the audience related to the least, I think. The ones dealing with political issues in a more direct or humorous way were read more and seemed easier for the Egyptians to respond to.
How would you sum up the whole experience?
I am incredibly happy with the project Sandra and I realized in those four months we were in Cairo and am amazed by the discovery that time and a healthy amount of passion can evoke all kinds of issues in me. The project deals with our difficulty of being foreigners and strangers in a country in the middle of a revolution, a revolution that isn’t ours. How to deal with the images the media provides, a foreign language, a culture where a lot of news travels from mouth to mouth and what that does to the authenticity of the entire thing.
We used the posters to filter all that and enjoyed the fact we could make a new one each day. That gave us the liberty to make bold statements next to highlighting silly little details. We were two tourists who made friends with some wonderful people, including many Egyptians. But also we’re reporters and artists who have the opportunity and responsibility to give this revolutionary stretch a face that shows more than a raging mob on Tahrir Square and Egyptian flags going up in flames.