If one was to survey people in Cairo today, almost three years after the beginning of the 2011 uprising, on their associations to the word kursi (“chair” in Arabic), the most common answer would most likely be “The Chair President”.
Mental images survive through the centuries, unaffected by the corrosive effect of time. If the idea of a Chair President is determined by today’s highly politicised and critical context, one should not forget that in ancient Egypt there was also an association between chairs and rulers: the hieroglyph for dignitary depicted a man sitting on a chair. And, the power associated with the chair is not necessarily secular. The second most common image related to the kursi in Egypt comes from the Koran. Verse 255 of the Second Surah, “Ayat al Kursi”, refers to a Chair with a capital C: the chair of the chairs, the throne from which Allah surveys heaven and earth.
In Cairo today, rather than thrones what we find is an endless amount of chairs that are beaten, broken and used. Far from perfect, in multitudes they inhabit the public space. 1001 Chairs of Cairo is a photographic archive of these street chairs that seeks to locate them in the imaginary of the city. The project explores the city of Cairo and its urban dynamics through the lens of an often overlooked and seemingly banal object – the chair. The visual research draws attention to creative practices of design that occur on the streets every day, and documents the unplanned interventions in public space that give Cairo its distinctive character. Following the pattern of other fast-growing neoliberal third world cities, the expansion of Cairo runs parallel to the proliferation of objects and consumer goods in its public spaces. Street chairs, like other omnipresent material elements, are one of the defining fixtures in that environment. The expanding network of these four-legged dots – usually located on the sidewalks, in between buildings and pavements – suggests the image of a parallel cityscape and an alternate monumentality.
One essence of street chairs is that they are the result of a creative process of a kind of “postproduction”, based on what chairs and pieces of chairs are available to their owners. In Cairo, people who work on the sidewalks “pimp” their chairs as a means to carve out a zone of relative comfort for themselves. They restore and redesign, creating hybrid pieces in which disparate elements coexist in surprisingly harmonic and effective ways. There are street chairs which are the result of the cannibalisation of one chair by another, like the discarded plastic office seat integrated into the remains of a simple café chair. In other cases, the operations are rather nursing acts of bodies in need of care: wounds get stitched, falling arms get attached to the back rest with wires, missing legs are replaced by stone prosthesis and broken bases with wooden boards. Minor ailments require less drastic interventions – a sort of palliative treatment with added layers of pillows, cartons and cushions to give rather hard surfaces a couch-like softness. Design as nest building. Or creative gestures, possible to be summed up by two concepts: recycling and the optimising of scarce resources.
The street chairs are photographed on their own, on the pavement where they are found. The images, taken on neighbourhood walks throughout the city, are shot with a Polaroid camera in set format. At the moment, the collected material is being edited for a forthcoming book which will be published in spring 2014 and include, in addition to the photographed street chairs, maps with their locations in different areas of Cairo, interviews with their owners, and commissioned essays, fiction and poetry related to and inspired by their presence in Cairo.