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Up Close in Cairo

Up Close in Cairo

This summer Sameer Farooq MFA 14 GD found himself feeling the heat while working in one of the most politically explosive areas of the Arab world.

This summer Sameer Farooq MFA 14 GD found himself feeling the heat while working in one of the most politically explosive areas of the Arab world. Thanks in part to a Graduate Studies Grant, an award reserved for exemplar students to pursue proposed projects, the graphic designer traveled to Cairo, Egypt to work on the third iteration of Museum of Found Objects. He describes the site-specific, collaborative project with Paris-based artist Mirjam Linchsooten as an “archeology of the present” that uses everyday objects people treasure as a means of understanding what they think, feel and believe.

According to Farooq, their latest focus on Cairo was inspired by the looting of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities during the height of the country’s revolution in 2011. At one point during the heist, protestors formed a human chain around the museum to protect its precious contents. Sadly, international thieves nonetheless managed to break in through the skylights and steal 54 priceless artifacts.

In response to this dark period, Farooq and Linchsooten traveled to Cairo in June and set up a pop-up photography studio in a storefront in the neighborhood of Ard El Lewa. There, they encouraged locals to bring them household items that they could imagine on display in the revered museum – with the goal of 54 new objects to replace those that were looted from the national museum two years ago. As part of the curating process, they asked participants questions such as “What is the most meaningful object that you own?” and “What personal object of yours tells a story?”

One their first visitors, a woman, offered a wide-tooth comb that had weathered an arduous move from Alexandria to Cairo. Even though it wasn’t expensive, it held immense personal value since it was the first thing she had bought with her own money. And in the ensuing 14 years, she had watched many family members borrow the comb to lovingly untangle snarls and smooth out kinks – meaning it held countless meaningful memories. Soon, other neighborhood residents followed suit and began stopping by the studio to tell the stories behind their most prized possessions.

“At first, we weren’t sure anyone would come visit us,” Farooq admits. “But the studio ended up becoming a popular hangout spot where people shared their life stories and their struggles.”

In their belief that “everyday objects warrant serious inquiry and can contribute to a richer understanding of where we are at the present moment,” Farooq and Linchsooten were excited to be “using this important moment in Egyptian history to analyze what is deemed valuable by the citizens of Cairo.”

They hadn’t quite anticipated what came next, however. Shortly after they arrived, throngs of protestors started to assemble to demand the removal of the former Islamic President Mohamed Morsi. “At first the marches were peaceful. People were happy because the military was in support of them,” Farooq explains. “But we could tell something big was brewing. We heard rumors that there would be a huge protest by the end of June.”

As the demonstrations became more frequent (and increasingly violent), the seasoned traveler decided to leave Egypt before total chaos ensued. “There were less and less safe places to go. The city was walling itself in,’ notes Farooq. “I was starting to get nervous reading the news headlines, so we decided to come home two weeks early. We didn’t want to cause our family undue grief.”

Thankfully, by the time Farooq and Linchsooten left for his home in Toronto, Canada, they had amassed enough material to complete a forthcoming book that includes personal interviews and photographs of the Egyptians’ cherished objects. They also managed to avoid the military coup that overthrew Morsi on July 3.

Now that he’s about to return to RISD for his final year as an MFA candidate in Graphic Design, Farooq is grateful for the opportunity. “At RISD everything is at your fingertips,” he says. “There’s access to nature and an incredible cultural environment. You can be in Boston or New York in a matter of hours.”

To top it off, he adds: “Everyone here seems quite happy because the quality of life here is quite good. Many people might not realize it, but this is a very privileged place.”

–Abigail Crocker