Czech it out! Cairo cracks up to Kafka through art on display at Anthropologie Gallery
Jiri Sliva, one of Czech Republic’s most prominent illustrators, famed across Europe for his witty cartoons, exhibits a series of lithographs and etchings at the Arthropologie Gallery in Cairo's Zamalek district.
The exhibition entitled Multiple Kafka, which runs until 6 June, gives a glimpse into the artist’s diverse portfolio alongside illustrations of eminent 20th century writer Franz Kafka’s novel, Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung).
The show is the first in a series of events sponsored by the Czech Republic embassy in Egypt, under the theme "Kafka in Cairo: 2013-2014." Other cultural activities designed to commemorate the Czech writer and familiarise the Egyptian public with his work will include translating some of Kafka’s works into Arabic as part of a book that will also be illustrated by Jiri Sliva. The translated works will be launched in the upcoming edition of the Cairo Book Fair.
Jiri Sliva was born in Pilsen, the Czech Republic’s fourth largest city. He moved to Prague in 1966, where he resides until today. Sliva studied economics and worked as a sociologist for eight years before a major career shift to the arts in the 1970s. He has exhibited his work in international galleries, including solo shows in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Tokyo, and New York. Multiple Kafka in Cairo marks the Czech artist’s African debut.
"At first, I was a little bit afraid of coming to Egypt," Sliva admitted in an interview with Ahram Online. "Because you know, all you read in European newspapers is 'Cairo's bloody revolution.'"
Yet, reassured by the Czech embassy, the artist arrived with his artwork to Cairo for the opening of Multiple Kafka on 19 May. "It is one hundred times better than I expected," he said buoyantly.
Sliva's show is composed of two parts; a series of lithographs and etchings that deal with a set of his favourite themes – cafes, jazz, love, wine, and of course, Franz Kafka. The exhibition also includes drawings Sliva prepared for an English translation of Metamorphoses that is scheduled to be published in two months. Nevertheless, running through the collection is his enduring style – a wittiness that entertains and intrigues. "I'm living on humour," the Czech artist said with conviction.
Published in 1915 and hailed as one of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century, Kafka's novella tells the peculiar story of a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who is suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a monstrous insect.
In this bizarre and morbid tale, Sliva finds humour. "Even in Metamorphosis, a story in which a man is turned into a cockroach, there are very funny moments," Sliva said with a large smile.
Sliva said there are many people who consider Franz Kafka to be a tragic writer who found it difficult to adapt to the world around him. "They saw the Kafka who could not write a letter to his fiancée before tearing it up three times first, they saw his tragic death by tuberculosis."
On the other hand, another group, to which Sliva belongs, find in his work an "enjoyment of writing, black humour and absurdity."
"Of course, our world is absurd, and he described it as he felt it," said Sliva fondly.
Through illustrating his words, Sliva hopes to persuade people of his version of Kafka and to get them to join the "enjoyers" side, as he called it, who believes that "Kafka enjoyed writing and hoped that we would enjoy it too."
The second component of this exhibition features posters with themes of wine, coffee houses, music, that juxtaposes visuals with text, ultimately soliciting smiles from visitors.
One lithograph piece depicts a burger bun with a stack of papers in the middle instead of meat, as text reads "McKafka." Another cartoon shows a man and woman seated opposite each other, each immersed in reading, with a comically large cup of coffee between them as two words hang above their heads – "Grand Cafe."
Sliva's artwork echoes the features of popular culture; despite the entertaining nature and cartoony appearance of his work, his body of work tackles socio-political and cultural themes that reflect dynamics not only in his home country or in Europe, but transcend geographical barriers.
One lithograph piece hanging on the Arthropologie Gallery’s wall captures two bird-cages side by side, with a funnel connecting both of them together, as a bird travels from one cell to the other. Sliva's choice of text is ironic as always; he writes 'Liberte,' (liberty). This piece is reflective of the currently suffering Arab Spring, for example.
As vibrant as the contemporary art scene in Cairo is, there has been a significant lack of exposure for international artists across the city’s galleries. With the exception of a few art spaces, including the Townhouse Gallery and the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), galleries have largely overlooked non Cairo-based artists, and it is Egyptian artwork that finds its way most frequently to their walls.
While this trend reveals the abundance of the indigenous art scene, it hinders the opportunities associated with exposure to foreign artwork. Such opportunities include inspiring local artists and helping them develop, enriching the art scene by providing insight to alternative art practices, and exposing local audiences to globally produced works, among many others. Galleries, such as Arthropologie, are to be commended on embracing international artwork as exposure to work emerging from foreign artists could be of great value to both artists and gallery dwellers.
Exhibition runs until 6 June
13A El-Maraashly Street, Zamalek, Cairo
Open daily from 10am to 3pm and from 5pm to 10pm. Closed Sundays
By Sara Elkamel