"Do you happen to have a small screwdriver on you?" Ayman Ramadan asks while holding up a pair of glasses with one of the arms hanging loose. "They belong to a friend", he explains. "If I fix her glasses, she owes me a favour."
It's Ramadan's life philosophy in a nutshell: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. It helped him survive on the streets of Cairo for several years.
Ramadan – mischievous eyes hidden behind black horn-rimmed glasses, underneath a mop of unruly hair – was born in a countryside village just outside of Cairo. At the age of sixteen, he decided to head to the big city, full of hope, dreams and big plans. "I didn't want the typical village life: get married young, have a bunch of kids and work as a farmer – I wanted more."
But life in Cairo was a lot more difficult than he'd imagined. "I had grossly underestimated how expensive everything would be. Upon arrival, I quickly found out that I did not even have enough money to rent a room, so I slept on the street."
Within a day, he found a job working as a security guard and used to send all the money he earned back home to his parents, who had no idea that their son was homeless. "I talked to them on the phone a few times a week, telling them all about my beautiful apartment, my amazing job and how great life in Cairo was" Ramadan told us. In reality, he spent his nights sleeping in microbuses and in the back of cars that were parked in public garages. "I would clean a microbus or a few parked cars in exchange for a place to sleep for the night."
Ramadan managed to sustain himself – and his family back home – like this for several years.
"One day I got into a fight with my boss on the street. He refused to pay me. It was something like €20 , which, at that time, was a small fortune for me."
But then something wonderful happened; something that would change Ramadan's life. A passerby approached Ramadan and his boss to calm the situation and, upon learning how little money was involved in the argument, turned to Ramadan and casually remarked: "Come work for me. I'll pay you much better and give you free accommodation."
That passerby was William Wells, head honcho at Townhouse Gallery, who put Ramadan to work as a security guard and handyman. Grateful for this new opportunity, he began to spend all his waking hours at the gallery.
Ramadan came to be inspired by the aritsts and art that regularly came in and out of the gallery, feeling that he too could produce such work. Initially, Ramadan copied other people's art. "The first thing I ever made was an almost flawless copy of a statue that was on show at the gallery" he recounts. It wasn't too long before he began to find his own vision.
In 2001, Ramdan held his first exhibition at Townhouse, called 'Hallucination Superstition', which was a representation of folk superstition through metal sculpture. His work was well received and other shows at Townhouse quickly followed.
Five years later, Ramadan was invited to show his work in Sweden and earned himself a scholarship at a San Francisco photography school, which led him to focus on video art. After finishing his education, he held residencies in Amsterdam, Denmark, Romania and the Netherlands, and now divides his time between Amsterdam and Cairo.
His work concentrates on individuals, usually anonymous, within their surroundings. While a lot of his references are made to Egypt's politics, he also draws on pop culture and global politics, as well as Islamic traditions.
Although Ramadan is trained as a photographer and video artist, he didn't take any photos during the January 25th Revolution. "I left Egypt on January 28th,2011 and came back from the Netherlands in May of that year. I missed out on most of the action. Moreover, everybody suddenly thought of themselves as a photographer, running around with a camera. I didn't want to do that. A revolution takes time and I think that art which substantially reflects on our revolution also takes time. I think it'll be another ten years before I'll create something that deals with it. Most of the so-called 'revolution art' nowadays is so fleeting. "
Life as an artist doesn't exactly have Ramadan rolling around in money, but street-life has made him thrifty enough to keep his head above water. "I just sold my car" he told us. "The money will help keep me afloat for a while when I go back to Amsterdam."
In the few hours sitting outside Townhouse with Ramadan drinking tea, there was an assembly line of people waiting for his help: he sets up for a Dutch photographer, hooks up a German journalist with media contacts, and even finds his Egyptian friend a babysitter. "I also introduced him to his girlfriend" he jokes. In the midst of all this, he is also setting up two new shows for himself in Italy and in Texas.
"Look, this is where I often slept" Ramadan says as we walk through the neighbourhood, pointing towards a tiny garage filled with clutter – a storage space of a mechanic. "In return for a place to sleep, I was his security guard and slept under the desk on the floor. It was more comfortable than sleeping in the back of a car or on the floor of a microbus."
The owner of the garage is tinkering with the bumper of a car in an alleyway around the corner. Ramadan goes to sit with him for a few minutes, helping him fix the bumper. He shows the mechanic the broken pair of glasses. "Do you have something to fix this with?" Ramadan asks the mechanic. The man shakes his head, but sends his son to find a tiny screwdriver and screw.
"I do realise I have been very lucky" he says. "I never, ever imaged I would be an artist. For a kid growing up in rural Egypt, that's just not a very realistic life goal. I always thought I would become a bus driver, like my dad."
A few days before Ramadan flew to Amsterdam to start his residency at the Dutch Rijksacademie, his father died. "You know that letter Kafka wrote to his father? In which he explains why he was always so afraid of him?" he asked. "I sent my father a letter after his death as well, but instead of writing on paper, I wrote to him on a galabeyya. He always used to walk around in one of those."
Reflecting on his whirlwind career, Ramadan never forgets his tumultous journey. "It all about trust," he explains. "The second people realise you're trustworthy, doors open for you." Every few metres he stops to chat with someone. "For years, all these people helped me out when I was living on the streets. I am so grateful to them; without them I would never have made it."
As our interview with Ramadan came to an end, the son of the mechanic came running to us, small screwdriver in hand. The artist has once again earned himself a favour.