New Art Show Brings the 'Sights and Sounds' of Egypt to San Diego.
August 1, 2012 1:09 p.m.
Bob Rob Medina, visual artist and teacher.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When we hear news reports about Egypt, we hear political unrest or religious turmoil, economic distress. But we never actually hear what it's like to live there. How do people work or go to school or enjoy themselves? Now a San Diego artist has returned from his residence in Alexandria, Egypt, to show us all in one installation what it's like to live in a foreign but intriguing culture of Egypt. Rob Bob Medina, visual artist and teacher of the welcome back to San Diego.
MEDINA: Thank you, I appreciate that, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us the story of how you and your wife took up residence in Egypt.
MEDINA: Well, we initially got the ball rolling in 2007, kept on getting pink slipped from Poway unified school district. So I finally decided to take the matter into my own hands. I joke with people and tell them I fired the school district. And they gave me up to three years to come back. And we just decided that we were not going to come back after that.
CAVANAUGH: What do you do in Alexandria?
MEDINA: We're teachers at an international school. I teach art and drama, and my wife teaches art at the elementary school.
CAVANAUGH: Probably this is a phrase you hear a lot, culture-shock. People must ask you, what is it like to leave Southern California and move to this ancient city of Alexandria, ancient-modern city. Was it culture shock for you?
MEDINA: Oh, yeah, it was culture-shock from the first day. We decided to go out and buy some flat bread, and I didn't know there was a line for men and a line for women.
MEDINA: And people were like yelling at us, and by the time they let us cut up to the front, they gave us 2 pieces of bread, and let us pay, and that was kind of it. But really, it's been kind of like chaotic and crazy when we first got there. And it still is. We still go through some culture shock, and I think we do more when we come back home.
CAVANAUGH: Because you're back to this culture now, right?
MEDINA: Yeah, where everything is orderly. You live in chaos for just a long time, you're used to the way things run that way.
CAVANAUGH: Do you enjoy that? There's a certain level of communality, and chaotic activity among people that I think describes the way the big cities work in other areas of the world as opposed to here. Do you enjoy some of that?
MEDINA: Yeah, definitely. I tell a lot of people that in Egypt, you're always in the midst of everything. There's people out, it's family-oriented and people-oriented. Here, you live in your suburban home, and people don't interact much. The guests before, they were all on their iPods and phones and stuff, texting or reading or doing something. And there wasn't much interaction in the green room.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
MEDINA: And in Egypt, there would be arguments, and different talking, and voices would be raised and what not.
CAVANAUGH: How does that work on a daily basis? How do you get to work and what do you do when you get home?
MEDINA: I work, I get up maybe ten minutes before I have to go to work and walk downstairs into classroom. We live on campus.
CAVANAUGH: How do you get around the city do you have a car?
MEDINA: No. That's one of the nice things about living there. We usually take a bus or we take a taxi. And a bus is equivalent of probably, like, $0.10, and a taxi about a 30-minute ride, maybe a couple dollars.
CAVANAUGH: Do you bike a lot?
MEDINA: Yeah, I do. I bike around Alexandria, a little bit. It's kind of like crossing the major road there called the corniche, which runs along the Mediterranean. It's like human Frogger.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: You had a scary experience, didn't you?
MEDINA: I've had a couple of scary experiences. I was coming home, and there was a group of boys. And a couple days I had seen them chase each other back and forth. So I thought I was in the clear. And this group of boys with like machetes and containers of natural gas cans are chasing each other. And I just stood there, like a dear frozen in the headlights, and these kids just kind of run past me. Then they stop, then the other group chases them the other way, and they stop. So it was going back and forth for about five minutes. But they didn't even talk to me or bother me or anything. They were just after each other. When I told one of my Egyptian friends about this, they go, oh, it's probably a fight over a girl.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Now, this highlights one of the questions I think that you're asked a lot about living in Egypt. Do you feel safe there?
MEDINA: It's a great question because I don't think I've ever felt safer.
CAVANAUGH: How so?
MEDINA: I don't know. I just feel like the people around, like, protect each other. And that kind of brings up the point when during the revolution and a couple days before that, everything got crazy. I was actually out of town. I was in do ha cutter, and my wife, and the rest of the teachers were back. And I was scared about leaving because I didn't know what was happening because tensions were rising. So what happened is they got over the mosque, and they're, like, shouting and yelling and a few minutes later, there's hundreds or thousands of angry men outside surrounding our school with these homemade weapon, and screaming and -- and what the mosque guy told them to do was come out and defend the neighborhood and the school. So in a sense, that was a relief. Otherwise we're syphoning gasoline out of cars and putting it into beer bottles, getting ready, like this is it, this is our Alamo or something. It was that crazy. Of ut because we didn't know the language, we didn't realize it was just angry people going after looters and people committing crime. Crime is really low in Egypt. You're living in a six of 6 million, and I feel unsafe when I come back to the United States because people have guns everywhere, and somebody might just flip out.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you were in Aurora, Colorado, weren't you?
MEDINA: Yeah. My wife and I went to go visit my family in Aurora, and my wife goes hey! Batman is opening tonight. Let's go see it. And I said no, I don't like Batman or superhero movie, so I said no.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing.
MEDINA: And you know the rest of the story there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about this installation. It's my understanding that what wanted to do was recreate the sights and sounds of Alexandria. In a rather small space that you've got. So how did you go about doing that?
MEDINA: Well, I asked Carlos at the Voz Alta last summer, I always go see it on Thursday nights. And I'm sitting there one night, and I turned over to Carlos, I said I want to turn your gallery into Egypt next summer. And he's like, okay! I said, well, can I do it? He's, like, just send me an e-mail. So I sent him an e-mail several months ago, and he goes okay, let's do it the show and stuff. And he said how many pieces do you have? I said, well, like 500 photographs, and about 70 found objects, drawings, paintings, and whatever. Will and in addition to that, I want to take a lot of other things and try to recreate a little slice of the city there.
CAVANAUGH: And you have sounds and you have sights. Do you have the smells of Alexandria too?
MEDINA: We're going to try.
CAVANAUGH: How are you going to do that?
MEDINA: Maybe livestock.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: So this is going to be crowded!
MEDINA: It's going to be a little crowded. A lot of people there smoke shisha pipes.
CAVANAUGH: Which is a hookah, right?
MEDINA: Yeah. It's a classist society, and that's one thing that unites everybody. All the people from the poor to the filthy rich all there smoke shisha.
CAVANAUGH: I've seen some of your work on your blog, which is called camels and tacos.
CAVANAUGH: Great blog. You seem to be really fascinated with the imagery of the women's dress in Egypt. Tell us about that.
MEDINA: I just think it's -- I'm really just fascinated. When I first got there, how like you don't really see a lot of hair there.
CAVANAUGH: It's in a veil.
MEDINA: Yeah, most of them wear the veil where you can see the face and the hands, and you've got the people that wear the more -- that follow the strict code of Islam. And I think that fascinates maybe even more because you want to see, you know, what the person looks like underneath. And I had my wife, you know, try on one, just messing around, taking a picture. And you can't imagine what could possibly be under there.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah. Now on the opening of the Voz Alta show, is there also going to be food from Egypt and that kind of experience as well?
MEDINA: Yeah, I've been in contact with somebody about creating Egyptian style falafels. It's different than using chickpeas. So that could help with the smells as well.
CAVANAUGH: What has living in Egypt done for your art?
MEDINA: I think it's made me more loose, a little less controlling of it, a little more chaotic. Here, I showed a lot with the Latino film festival, and so it was more -- it was more in tune with what was going on here. And so in some way, it sounds strange to say, but I'm like a chameleon, you go to a different place, and you become that other person, or you become those other influences.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as we leave, I hope that we can hear just a little bit of this artist om calhom. People will be hearing that at the gallery as well.