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Stories from Artists in Residence

Sonia Kacem | Home Not Alone Residency Experience 2020


Initially, I applied for a residency in Tunisia and was about to spend three months at the Kamel Lazaar Foundation in Tunis. Because of the Pandemic and the restrictions on travel and movement, Pro Helvetia has generously offered, to the artists who had their residency scheduled in 2020, the ‘Home Not Alone’ residency format or postponing their residency until it is a bit clear for all of us about travel starting up again.

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 and the increase of the restrictions, I chose the ‘Home Not Alone’ residency format. I looked back at the six-month residency that I did in Cairo with the Conference of swiss cities for culture

in 2019 and thought it would be good to continue building on what I had already started.

When I was in Cairo, I intended to devote myself to Islamic art; I developed an appreciation for its non-figurative character predicated upon wholly different parameters from those at play in modernist abstract art in Western culture. From there my attention gradually focused on the colours of the facades of buildings in Cairo.


In agreement with Pro Helvetia on the shift of location and new research project, I gathered a research group of three mentors/experts with close ties to Egyptian culture. The group is composed of an anthropologist of the Middle East, Aymon Kreil, a cartoonist, Shennawy, and an architect and researcher, Dalila Ghodbane, to reflect collectively on colours and surfaces in relation to Cairo’s built environment.

We shared and confronted singular experiences and expertise to unfold ideas and images, through online meetings, writings, readings, virtual strolls, memories, storytelling, and social media. Each one of my mentors had a different but complementary role that enriched the process. 


For twelve weeks, I would have weekly meetings with one of my mentors. With Dalila, we discussed urbanism and colours, and how colours could be contextualized. During our first meeting, we talked about my past works, in order for Dalila to familiarize herself with my practice. We had previously exchanged a few images of the interiors of the houses that Dalila lived in while leading her research in Cairo; They were as colourful and ornamental: my photos of the facades and the private balcony areas. Dalila shared readings with me that we discussed, including a text on colour town-planning (extract from Gareth Doherty, The paradoxes of green, 2010).

We also talked about the method of work and investigation; she shared her own experience of creative work as an architect mixed with that of scientific research in writing her doctoral thesis. Dalila suggested organizing the story of the work’s development, as well as how the artist encountered its subject, namely, colour in the city, in Cairo.

I remembered the frustration I felt during my first stay in Cairo for not being able to speak to people orally; it made me look for anything that could speak to me. The thing that struck my attention the most, in other words, what was most intelligible, were the colours. Thus emerged observations that turned into reflections on the paradox of a city entirely covered with a layer of sand, yet still so colourful and, in a way, so talkative. Approaching colour as an expression is one of the avenues explored during those meetings.

Other related topics were also mentioned, such as pattern. Indeed, stripes are recurring patterns in my work, which recall the drapes used on balconies, in temporary arrangements such as markets, but also the facades of Mamluk buildings and the alternation of red or black stones, and white we call “Ablaq”.


With Aymon, we read and reflected on many texts. As I am not a scholar, it was particularly exciting and interesting for me to receive Aymon’s guidance. The four working sessions that we had centred on discussing the theoretical dimension of my project. To this end, we explored four main themes, supported by a different text during each of our meetings:

  • The category of Islamic art, via an article by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (14.8).
  • Calligraphy, via a detour to a text on the anthropology of the hand by Nicolas Adell (21.8.)
  • DIY, in reference to Michel de Certeau (28.8.).
  • Privacy, starting from an article by Susan Gal on private/public distinction (5.9.).

At the same time, Aymon encouraged me to shape my reflection in writing and we discussed my previous projects and their relationship to the current research.


With Shennawy, we used to take virtual strolls in the city using Google Maps, searching for pictures of places that he would send me; he would reveal the atmospheres and stories about those places. During our four online meetings, we talked about the light in Cairo, daytime and artificial, which also forms the landscape of the city, and its colours, created either by artificial light or by the effect of natural light during the daytime. He showed me his drawings from Cairo and Tunis’s streets (as he did a residency in Tunis), and the differences between the two atmospheres as an example. Likewise, in our visual exploration of Cairo, we discussed the source of the colour ranges that we see in the city’s public space, through the facades, the advertising on the walls, or the lighting of the shops, showing the influence of the choice of material or the lack of choice sometimes.

We also discussed the concept of green spaces in Cairo as seen by the State and citizens, the old advertisements drawn on the walls and the work of designers in public spaces (the metro, the frescoes on the bridges, the official state logos) as well as the work of cartoonists and graphic designers of different generations (1960–2000) through the work of artists such as Mohieddine Ellabbad, Hegazy and Sami Rafai.


All these inputs are fruitfully merging in my studio practice through writing, sketching, and a new body of work composed of five coloured wall sculptures. With the research group, we are intending to extend those discussions initiated during the ‘Home Not Alone’ residency by developing an experimental website collectively next year relating to each of our singular experiences with Cairo.


My art practice and process are deeply connected to the body experience with the environment. From observations, encounters, and sensitive experience, I can build reflection that merges in sculptural forms. If I look back at the side effects of the Covid-19 safety measures and lockdowns, virtual space became a space to socialize, exchange and see art. In that sense, I am curious to continue to explore the virtual space and develop new encounters.

In my case, gathering a research group with academic and artistic backgrounds is not only a new direction that I am taking but also it is a guarantee to develop strong bonds towards a network of knowledge and experts that my work would grow from.


As a guest tutor within the work.master program at HEAD Geneva (2020–2022), I started transmitting the knowledge I gained during my ‘Home Not Alone’ residency, from my mentors and the whole process to my students within a different pedagogical context.

The shift to a home residency/work grant was a great support during this period of isolation. Thanks to Pro Helvetia, I’ve been able to realize this new residency project that led to sharp research from a place where I felt safe with a group of competent, benevolent and generous experts.


Sonia Kacem

Amsterdam | December 2020


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