Modernist Indignation

‘Modernist Indignation’ was an elegy for a rapidly disappearing culture, seen through the prism of the first Arabic design magazine.

The Egyptian installation mourned the loss of the country’s modernist architecture, a rich heritage that has been left to ruin or violently erased, and asked the question: how can a design language that was once embraced by a society be so easily forgotten and denied a place in history?

Visitors saw a contemporary reinterpretation of a fictional 1939 exhibition put on by the editors of Al Emara, the first Arabic-language design magazine, which was published between 1939 and 1959. The original exhibition would have explored the magazine’s mission, but at the Biennale it stood as a testament to a lost culture, said curator Mohamed Elshahed. “In the absence of accessible archives for the study and documentation of modernist architecture in Egypt, the magazine, scattered between private collections and antique booksellers, is the most comprehensive record of the country’s embrace of modernist design. Many of the buildings published in the magazine have been demolished, mutated or suffer from poor upkeep and no heritage status has been granted to any structure of modernist design.”

The display also included a video shot in the house of Sayed Karim, the architect who founded Al Emara, who ran into political trouble with the state in 1965 after an illustrious career. The slow, contemplative journey through the house was accompanied by a voiceover of Karim’s 1939 manifesto, “What is architecture?” Meanwhile, as visitors walked around the exhibition, they unwittingly participated in erasing the logo of the magazine, temporarily inscribed on the floor. “A design language can be popular yet it can be done away with and forgotten so swiftly without proper documentation, study and archiving,” said Elshahed. “Design culture is vulnerable.”

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Photography: Ed Reeve


Administering bodies:

Zein Khalifa (Tintera) and Cairobserver

Design Team:

Suzanne Gaballa (Lund Gaballa Architects), Nick Westby (Westby & Jones Ltd.), Ahmed Tahoun, Valerie Arif, Amarasri Songcharoen (Seam Design)


Mohamed Elshahed

Supporting Bodies:

Orascom Developments, Pharos Holding for Financial Investments, Barjeel Art Foundation, British Council, Mrs Sherine Sawiris, Mrs Cherine Helmy

2018 Exhibitors