Model Citizens

A pair of Dutch artists aims to empower a Cairo community with a fantastically detailed miniature replica.

When Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis moved into Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery this year as artists-in-residence, they didn’t just introduce themselves to the neighbors. In collaboration with five Egyptian artists, the Dutch couple created a 1:35 scale model of the diverse Antikhana neighborhood—including the two gallery buildings, a garage, several shops, a residential block, a school, and a derelict pink marble palace—as part of an ambitious project to promote community empowerment.

After six months, the neighborhood’s Lilliputian counterpart is still not complete. (It took Omnia Sabry a month just to fashion some 1,000 columns on the neoclassical Prince Said Halim Pasha Palace.) The models are so lifelike—down to details like posters, garbage, and laundry lines—that some residents seemed to see their own homes for the first time. “When he noticed the trash on his roof in the model, one man decided he finally had to do something to clean it up,” Osterholt says. This is exactly the kind of reaction the artists hope to see more of next spring, when the final models will be displayed in the gallery and then modified as locals suggest improvements they would like to see happen in real life.

The big question is whether the exercise will influence the government’s planned gentrification of the neighborhood, which could displace residents and small businesses. “They want to develop for tourists, but it already functions as a cultural center with an interesting mix of artists, intellectuals, and workers,” Uitentuis says. The artists hope their models will encourage architects and urban planners to take a more nuanced look at the neighborhood—miniature warts and all.

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