The collision of two worlds was given a very different and arguably more successful treatment at the Townhouse, which on Sunday launched On the Street, its exhibition of paintings by street children. The project originally began in the late 1990s, when artist Huda Lutfi was invited to a drop-in centre for street children run by Kamal Fahmy. There she discovered the children drawing "the Pyramids, the sun and the Egyptian flag", and asked them to instead use their own experiences for inspiration. These weekly encounters produced art which was displayed at the British Council, the French Cultural Centre and the Townhouse, until the drop-in centre was closed by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2001 and all the paintings were lost — but not before some had been scanned and saved.
I have a low tolerance for children’s art, and generally prefer the little darlings’ efforts be confined to their parents’ fridges, but many of the images on display at the Townhouse are deeply moving, the sadness and terror conveyed jar uncomfortably with the crude naivety of the form. The emotional impact of the paintings is made even more intense by the description, in the children’s own words, of the experiences which drove them to homelessness, and how the opportunity to paint affected their lives, related in the book accompanying the exhibition. Fourteen-year-old Rami describes the effect that seeing his paintings appreciated by others had on him by saying, "When I see the foreigners looking at them, and the Arabs looking at them, saying they are beautiful, I feel a strong happiness. I sit aside alone and think, why do they say it’s beautiful? Why did they bring them here?"
Accompanying "On the Street" is a photographic exhibit by Hesham Labib. "Cut Short", a collection of portraits of five street children, is inspired by Tahani Rached’s 2006 documentary film El-Banat Dol (Those Girls), which presented a harrowing glimpse into the world of Cairo’s street children. Despite their vulnerability and the misery of their circumstances, Rached’s homeless girls demonstrate a resilience that defies pity; they are proud, and it is a trait that defines Labib’s photographs: the cinematic quality of these images, their pared down simplicity and above all their subjects combine to make something beautiful. Even the infuriating and presumably deliberate absence of any kind of background information about the photographs and their subjects only contributes to their enigma.