By observing and learning, Darb 1718 founder Moataz Nasr attempts to bridge cultures and show their common links through his contemporary art.
By Nehal El Meligy Photos by Omar Mohsen and courtesy of Darb 1718
Egyptian contemporary artist Moataz Nasr sits in a wet t-shirt at his wooden desk with his back to the only piece of art in the office that is hanging on a red brick wall. Cairo’s afternoon heat is intense and he’s just arrived moments earlier on his bicycle, riding all the way from Downtown where he lives.
The founder of Darb 1718, a contemporary art and culture center and a resort-like haven tucked away between the cracks of red-brick blocks and cemeteries in the historic working-class neighborhood of Old Cairo, says he never imagined his hobby was going to be his job.
“I grew up in my grandmother’s house. I didn’t have a lot of toys so there was more room for me to make my own. I had my own world, I used to spend a lot of time alone, so I used to tell myself stories and make toys.”
I glance up at the symbolic picture on the wall: the picture is split in half; a horse on the left and a boy on the right. You can see both their profiles, and they’re both wearing blinders.
At 51, Nasr has come a long way from making toys, and has made his family, who played a significant role in inspiring his passion for art, proud.
“There was a painting by my aunt that hung in our dining room. It was of a boy going for a dip in the Nile at sunset. At the time, whenever I looked at the painting I used to well up, but I didn’t understand why. It was very moving, I identified with the boy, he made my think of myself and of loneliness. I always wondered how a painting made me cry. Whenever I used to go eat at my grandmother’s I used to sit with my back to the painting, and whenever I entered the room I didn’t look at it. It made me understand later in life how art could touch a person and it made me think of how I could deliver my message without saying much.”
Egypt features prominently in Nasr’s work, and the artist recalls how he stumbled upon Egypt when he was invited to do site-specific work (where an artist is invited to a certain location and asked to do work inspired by that location) in South Africa at the Cradle of Humankind — a world heritage site named by UNESCO in 1999.
“I went to South Africa and I stayed for about a month and a half. I tried to learn about the people and the culture. What really caught my attention is that the Egyptian goose we find on temples is found everywhere in South Africa. Here in Egypt, we call the crocodile ‘the crocodile of the Nile;’ they call it the Egyptian crocodile, and many other things related to Egypt.”
He then reflects a bit on his childhood with a smile on his face, “One of the things that I have always had stored in me, and was always waiting for it to come out, is the Sun Boat in Giza. As a kid, whenever I went to the pyramids I had to visit it. The rowing oars and how they are set up always caught my eye: standing but overlapping and forming a small cross at the top. On my way back from a visit to the Zulu tribe, I saw the same setup of the Egyptian rowing oars, but with eight-meter long pieces of wood eight centimeters thick. I asked my guide to stop to see what it was all about; I had a feeling it was the same thing. I wanted to do something that connects both. So I called my project Sun Boat — this is going to be exhibited soon but it’s been delayed due to lack of funds.”
Nasr was not all that surprised when he stumbled upon the long pieces of wood in South Africa; he firmly believes that all world cultures are interconnected, that we are all one. Perhaps his sense of universal unity is influenced by his hometown, the once-cosmopolitan port city of Alexandria. He was born and raised in the coastal city, and studied economics at the University of Alexandria. He first entered the Egyptian art scene in 1993 after two years of soul-searching, and finally deciding that he was meant to be an artist.
“It’s not called a type,” Nasr corrects my choice of wording when I ask which channel - a term we agreed on - of art he identifies with the most. “You see, to be able to channel whatever I’m thinking about to the audience, I could use different tools and materials. It’s important that they demonstrate my idea clearly. So, you can find me using video, textiles, metal, water, my own body even. All of these are just materials that help me demonstrate my idea.”
In one of his most personal works to date, Nasr confronted his father on video and tried to work out with him problems he and his late mother had with him. “Sometimes certain ideas lend themselves to a specific channel, which best conveys the message to the audience,” adds Nasr.
“There wasn’t a better channel than video to present this issue to the public as clearly as possible. So I filmed two videos, one of me and one of my dad and then I merged them together. We talked for three hours to solve our issues together, and I took my mother’s side. My father was from a different era; he was raised completely differently than me, and had a different mentality. He was born in 1919. We clashed a lot when I was growing up. He was a very traditional man, he was a man of law working at the state council and I was the one interested in art and all that nonsense, according to him of course,” he adds the last bit with laughter so we didn’t understand each other very well. And at the same time, his relationship with women — in this case symbolized by my mother — I considered shameful and unhealthy; it was a very bad relationship.”
Nasr was right about his choice of medium, which resonated with his audience in different countries. The artist dubs this problem a universal one and that’s why he felt he had to share it. One attendee, clearly moved by the video, approached Nasr after one of the screenings to tell him they were going to talk to their father that day. Art benefits both the audience and the artist, Nasr believes, and in his particular case it did just that. It helped Nasr break the barrier between him and his father, and as a result they were able to get along in the last period of his father’s life.
In addition to highlighting problems, the role of art is also to introduce people to different cultures. In Egypt, the saying “What was broken cannot be fixed” has lived on for decades, but the Japanese believe the exact opposite, says Nasr. “There was a Japanese artist, for example. He put together broken pots using gold. I discovered that ceramic pots in Japan are very valuable to the extent that parents pass them on to their children. So if a pot is broken, they fix it by using gold. They do that so they can give the new pot more value and despite it looking different, it still looks nice.”
Within Nasr’s art, the political, social and spiritual interconnect, and the latter, he says, represents him personally. Nasr explains the lines exist in his work all the time but what controls which of them intersect is his moment of epiphany. “I can get affected by something. It can stay inside of me for months or even years before coming out. That’s the process: observe, learn, and then bring out what I’ve been storing.”
At other times he is forced to summon inspiration. For his upcoming project in Yorkshire, where he’s been invited to one of the biggest contemporary art parks in the world to do side specific work, he’ll have to spend some time there and create a piece of art inspired by the visit.
With Egypt at the back of his mind, Nasr reveals he might do something related to the British occupation of Egypt. “If I set up a certain environment before working then it’s almost as if I’m making a decision, but it’s actually more spontaneous.”
Nasr stops to roll a cigarette then explains the main reason Robert Motherwell was his favorite artist growing up is because “his work is very simple, there’s no noise, it’s very deep.” He then takes a puff of the cigarette before adding, “But the best artist out of all them is nature — this is where you’ll find the most beautiful art.”
Nasr was born in Alexandria in 1961. Although his passion was always for art, he studied economics due to family pressures. It was in 1995 that he tapped into Egypt’s art scene when he won third place in an art competition organized by the Ministry of Culture despite his lack of academic qualifications. In 2001, Nasr gained international fame when work was displayed by Italy’s Galleria Continua, which also added him to its list of top artists. Since then, Nasr has participated in numerous local and international exhibitions and his work has recieved great praise. In 2008, Nasr tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit and founded Darb 1718, a non-profit organization with the goal of being “a trampoline to advance the burgeoning contemporary art movement in Egypt.”