CAIRO — The first thing Jason Stoneking noticed when looking out onto the Cairo skyline were the numerous satellite dishes stacked on crowded rooftops. The writer and artist had never seen anything like it in his home country, the United States, and was intrigued by the aesthetics of it all.
What some see as an eyesore, or a sign of societal disintegration, Stoneking saw as an opportunity to empower the community and create something beautiful in the process. As a result, the Cairo Dish-Painting Initiative came to life.
"For me, it's two ideas meeting each other," says Stoneking. "One is the idea of how Egypt is perceived from the outside when you look out from an airplane or balcony, what they see and how they perceive Cairo. The other idea is from an individual perspective, the person who owns the dish can paint it any color they want and express their own individuality. So for me it's a meeting point between the expression of the individual and the perception of the community."
Jason Stoneking at work — Photo: Cairo Dish-Painting Initiative
A pop of color in the chaos
Stoneking had just landed in Egypt in early September for a three-month art residency at Artellewa, an art space in the neighborhood of Ard al-Lewa in Giza, when he started the initiative to paint satellite dishes on Cairo's rooftops, a pop of color that stands out among the chaos of the city's neighborhoods. "Everyone has this symbol on their roof, and they can paint it whatever color they want," Stoneking says.
The initiative first started in Ard al-Lewa, where Stoneking is also living. He gathered his paint supplies and climbed to the top of the buildings of his temporary neighborhood to paint satellite dishes a mix of bright pink, blue and green.
Stoneking feels right at home in Ard al-Lewa, sitting at a local café while residents hound him about pictures he'd taken of them that he later printed and gave to them.
"Where's the picture of me painting on the roof?" asks Moussa Mohamed Moussa, 10.
Communicating in symbols and very few words of broken Arabic, Stoneking finally conveys that the pictures will be ready by the end of the week while the boy impatiently nods his head in agreement. "I had a lot of fun painting the dishes, and I like the colors," says Moussa, before going back to discussing how soon he can get the pictures.
Mahmoud Mohamed, another resident, looks up at the satellite dishes with a smile. "They're beautiful," he says. Mohamed then thinks of how much better it would be if all of the dishes were painted the same way, saying that it would give Cairo a civilized look.
"No one cared about the look of the street itself, let alone the rooftop," he says.
Stoneking says it brings him joy to do something here because the people have been kind enough to host him. "The people of the neighborhood have been so welcoming, and it's so nice of them to have us here and allow us to do our work," he says. "So it's important for us to do our work here and give back to the community that's given so much to us."
Stoneking plans to extend the initiative to other neighborhoods and already has his eyes on a roof in Zamalek and another in the city center.
An abundance of materials
With the country currently being politically charged, Stoneking wanted to offer relief from political divisions and create something inclusive. He explains that upon arriving in Egypt, there was apprehension that he would create art that was political, controversial or confrontational. Therefore, he chose a form of self-expression that is easily accessible to people of different backgrounds, age groups and political ideals.
But he admits that he is still faced with the question of why Egypt needs a foreigner to come paint its satellite dishes. "My answer is always, 'You don't,'" he says. Stoneking hopes that the initiative will gain traction and that people will paint their own dishes.
"I definitely think it's more interesting if other people paint their own dishes than if I came to their house and do it, because it's not my community and it's not my country," he says. "So I love the idea that I can help start this project and inspire people. But in the end, it's about the people here and what colors they like and what they want to say from their rooftops."
Fady Azzouny, a 26-year-old veterinarian, could relate to the initiative because he also recalls looking out from the airplane about to land in Cairo, only to see grey and dusty colors. "I imagined that if I did this, and a lot of other people did it too, Egypt would be colorful," he says.
Azzouny learned about the initiative through Facebook page and encouraged his fiancée and her family to follow suit. "I really hope that when I leave, the dish painting initiative doesn't stop," Stoneking says. "I hope that it can keep flourishing and growing, and become a way for people to express themselves."
Before traveling to Egypt, Stoneking lived for a while in Paris, France. He notes that there are advantages and disadvantages to the art scene here compared to European countries. "There's a great freedom here because in some ways you can do whatever you want," he says. "There are so many available materials and so many people who want to work and volunteer and help. Anything you can imagine with your mind, someone can build it, so that's really liberating."
But he adds that there are often organizational difficulties, such as water or electricity cuts, that hinder the work. "In Europe, it's the opposite. You always have water. You always have Internet. But nobody cares about what you're doing," he jokes.
Stoneking says that when he was leaving Paris he heard of at least two or three art galleries closing down, because fewer people are interested in art. In Egypt, by contrast, there are new places opening up and various groups starting street art and performance art projects, he notes. Which is why Stoneking is happy to give back to Egypt and what he describes as its "exciting art scene."
"Egypt has been so welcoming to me so I want to make some pretty things while I'm here, just as a way to say thank you for having me," he says.
Pulling up a chair next to Stoneking at Ard al-Lewa's local café, 10-year-old Moussa stares ahead at the brick and cement exterior of the building in front of him. "Can he paint the walls of the building for us too?" he asks.