Art Travelling: Cairo Photo Week

Exploring Cairo Photo Week: Part One

While the art scenes of Europe and North America are locked down and effectively (if temporarily) dead, Cairo is going from strength to strength. Now the Egyptian capital hosts its second festival of photographic arts, Cairo Photo Week.

The festival theme “Depth of Field” is the second incarnation of the festival, held in the city’s historic Downtown, an architecturally-rich area of magnificent 19th Century buildings that are the ideal setting for the festival’s diverse range of exhibitions and events. There are seminars, talks and workshops aimed at photographers and exhibitions displaying the wealth of Egyptian talent behind the lens.

There is too much to take in on one visit, so for my first excursion to the event, I visited the exhibitions’ Miscegenation: On That One Photograph …..’ and ‘Mu’Anath.’

‘Miscegenation: On That One Photograph …..’ is curated by the Cairo Curatorial Collective. I met the curator, the Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez, at the exhibition, and he introduced me to the exciting multiformity of the Egyptian photographic scene. The exhibition space is a beautiful building that reminded me of Manhattan’s stately spaces, and I revelled in the view. The show features exhibitors of different ages and photographic practices, from Barry Iverson’s exquisite hand-painted analogue photographs to Butheina Shaalan’s lively exploration of a countryside livestock market. I especially loved Marwa Adel’s delicate monochrome works, which layer the human figure with organics detritus such as leaves and hair and dust. I would love to have a book of Adel’s images to lose myself in.

While I was probably most drawn to the monochrome works the most, I found the digital narratives by Nelly El Sharkawy stimulating. She imagines the distinctive vernacular architecture of Cairo’s poor districts re-positioned into bucolic French landscapes, thereby modifying or even erasing the wretchedness. I admit this is a risky and possibly dangerous project, as it could be seen as romanticizing poverty by finding the beauty in it. Still, I interpreted it as a more radical celebration of the human insistence on living vigorously. What is a ‘slum’ anyway? As an adventurer by nature (and paying my artist dues),  I spent some time living (happily) in quite crummy places, and I agree it is all a matter of perspective. El Sharkawy’s work made me laugh a bit and made me think. I also love architectural photography, so I am looking forward to seeing more of her work, which can be seen here.

R. Melina Nicolaides

Melina Nicolaides offers deceptively simple photographs of trees, reminiscent of Robert Adams. Like the American master photographer, Nicolaides communicates a sensitive stillness, an image of time standing still amid the maelstrom of change. But Nicolaides’s trees are really ancient. In a hidden valley, the Olive Grove of Aegina, the olive trees are thought to be over 1500 years old.  As she observes in the exhibition text, ‘These trees possess a human-like demeanour, their beautifully misshapen trunks and visible roots like living sculptures, each one its own moving yet immobile entity; like a scene from a procession, or figures paused in a gesture.’ I stood for a long time looking at these trees, and then I returned and stood a long time more looking at them. Many thoughts passed through my mind: how they emerged from olive pits so long ago. The juicy, bitter taste of the olives. The silkiness of their oil. The beauty of longevity and endurance. The fragility of the natural world. The miracle that humanity has not destroyed it. I felt refreshed and revived from these photographs.

Bahia Shehab

Moving on, I visited ‘Mu’anath’ in a large gallery in the aptly-named and highly atmospheric Kodak Passageway. ‘Mu’anath’ means (loosely) ‘feminine,’ and although it is not solely a photographic exhibition, it features some very fine photographic work by and about women. It is less tightly-curated than ‘Miscegenation ‘but is an enjoyable show to explore. Outstanding for me was the portrait series by Bahia Shehab, ‘Light and Hope: Blind Women’s Orchestra.’ The orchestra, made up of visually-impaired women, was founded in 1950 and is still going strong playing classical compositions. Shehab’s portraits, both still and video images, are striking and moving. She captures the women’s shyness and pride, to wonderful effect. Nelly El Sharkawy is featured in this show as well, with a wonderfully imagined candy-colored architectural dream image. Marwa Adel also appears with a substantial narrative work that combines tender beauty with unsettling metaphysical unease.

Marwa Adel

Finally, Salma El Serafi’s angles and grids captured and held my attention. I am always attracted to stark shapes in the landscape, and these images are very satisfying on that count.

Salma El Serafi

After spending a good few hours in these two shows I felt replete. But there is still more! What a feast for the eye. Time to dive deeper into the Depth of Field

Information about Cairo Photo Week can be found here

Nelly El Sharkawy’s candy-colored architectural dream image