Cairo Photo Week: Saturation

Ahmed Khaled and Amado Al Fadni : Saturation

Reclaiming Egypt’s place on the African continent

The first time visited Egypt, a long time ago, I was excited and said to the person who met me at the airport “I’m so happy to be in Africa!” His response was a bit surprising: “Hmm we don’t usually think of Egypt as part of Africa.” I notice that things have changed a lot, but Egypt’s place on the African continent is a theme which still seems problematic but it is also one well worth considering. Ahmed Khaled and Amado Al Fadni address this subject through the inplementation of startling colour, in the photographic exhibition Saturation, curated by Heba Al Moaz and Engy Zahran.

They have produced a show which is aesthetically satisfying but also thought-provoking and at times challenging. Khaled’s portraits of people in East Africa are composited onto striking colourful backgrounds, while Al Fadni’s digital collages are printed onto fabric which is then worn by the model in his photographs.

Ahmed Khaled, from exhibition information

Khaled’s portraits of ordinary people in East Africa are composited onto striking colour fields of single colour, with deep saturation inkjet-printing.  Affirmative and positive, these sentiments are mostly conveyed through the use of colour which forces the eye toward it then and pleases the eye, and then slowly registers a connection between the viewer and subject.

Amado Al Fadni ‘Askari’ image from exhibition info.

Sudanese-Egyptian artist Alfadni is more critical in his work titled Askari (soldier, in Sudanese), yet it is accessible to any audience without dragging out depressing feelings of guilt or antagonism. It is difficult to achieve artwork that critically addresses these problems of colonialism, cultural complexes and identity, and Alfadni’s approach is through the seduction of colour.

Both artists demonstrate just how powerfully art can offer information, make connections and encourage discussion and thoughtfulness. Art may not offer solutions but can raise awareness more effectively than a news report. And again, the aesthetic properties of colour is the tool these artists use to great effect.

Askari: monochrome to polychrome

Askari, exhibition view

AlFadni starts with a black and white photograph of a Sudanese soldier, the Askari, he then takes it, and all the iconography associated with the colonial era and the Anglo-Egyptian period (including Queen Victoria and their totemic events of the time such as the Battle of Omdurman) and transposes them into a complex installation that includes photography, costume design and and printing onto fabric.

from the exhibition text:

AlFadni’s work evolved from a research-based study on the history of “Askari” (from Swahili and Arabic, meaning soldier, or military). The Askari was an enslaved Sudanese soldier (from the region of Sudan بلاد†ال†سود†ان† in west, central, and east Africa) who served in the armies of Europeancolonial powers in Africa during the 19th and 20th Centuries. During both World Wars, Askari units served outside their colonies of origin, in various parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In South Africa, the term refers to former members of the liberation movements who defected to the Apartheid government security forces. Through this body of work, AlFadni deplores the long-standing idea of the enslaved Sudanese soldier, and condemns its perpetuation by recreating a visual record of the Sudanese soldiers in colonial and modern history.

intense, super saturated colour acts as a seduction into a real consideration of the subject

The printing process, especially colour printing, is highly important in this exhibition and Alfadni’s fabric uses the Dutch wax print design which is associated with ‘African’ textiles – these popular colours and designs can be seen all over Africa and in the African diaspora (I’m very familiar with them in my home neighbourhood in Dalston, for example) Yinka Shonibare is another artist who uses these textile designs in his work but Alfadni incorporates a range of photographs into the textile and then turns the printed textile into pastiche uniforms for the Askari. The complexity of the work mirrors the complexity of the issue, yet the work is accessible to any audience – as indeed is the question of Black Africa’s place in Egypt; it is a subject which should be discussed and I hope that this exhibition will offer a sound opportunity to do exactly that.

from the exhibtion text:

The concept of work was essentially based on two elements: the Askari archived colonial photos and uniforms, and the concept of a pattern language that emerged in the African culture through the Dutch wax prints. The Dutch prints / Ankara (West African textile) were represented by the Netherlands to the Dutch Gold Coast (Ghana) that was later extended to the West African market. The printed fabrics quickly integrated themselves into African apparel, women used the fabrics as a method of communication and self-expression, integrating colours, shapes, and visual elements such as patterns and icons that created a shared language and widely understood meanings. Following the same tradition, the artist created his own Dutch prints and used them as a medium to communicate his ideas. AlFadni revives their long-forgotten voices through his ciphered patterns that reveal the never-ending exploitation of the Sudanesepeople from the earliest times to the present day.

I was lucky enough to have a long chat with Alfadni about his work and about how it was generated out of his own experience as an Egyptian Sudanese. We talked about the long and complex relationship between Egypt and the Sudan and the different and sometimes conflicting cultural influences. It’s difficult to say, but I think upon reflection Askari was probably the most exciting piece of work I’ve seen in my time in Egypt and I’ve been to see quite a lot of amazing exhibitions, but I think this one probably takes the Art Traveller award. I hope to follow the work of both artists. I would love to bring this exhibition to London; I think that it would meet with an appreciative audience. I defy anybody to look at the work without being moved and excited by it.

African light

In Cairo the light is usually strong and clear but there can be misty days where the light is filtered and becomes translucent. There also dusty days when winds bring desert dust into the city. In Saturation the Artists chose strong clear colours without any form of filtering and they strike the eye with an intensity that is almost painful; it is not relaxing or soothing.

Ahmed Khaled, exhibition view.

In Khaled’s work the relationship of subject and the colour field surrounding them is a relationship that the subject didn’t participate in. The colour field is an artificial space, therefore it is the opposite of the anthropological and ethnological ‘National Geography’ type of image. However, this paradoxically mades me think about precisely those kinds of images. Most ethnographic photography is traditionally made by the outsider looking in and while Khaled’s work is in that tradition, by refusing documentary realism through the use of the colourfield, he foregrounds the fact that actually the photographer is always an interpreter.

Untitled |30 x 20 cm| Digital art on Paper| (1/5)| Ahmed Khaled| 2019. Image from the exhibitoin info

For me the most powerful of the works is one of a large woman seen seated, from behind, wearing a bright pink top and head wrap with a purple skirt. Set against a strongly coloured purple background, she is corpulent but instead of being unattractive, she becomes elemental, like a Venus of Willendorf, a fertility goddess exerting a kind of comforting and comfortable sensual maturity. This picture is exciting and memorable to me; it is less beautiful than the others, and in a sense, it is not really a portrait because you can’t see her face and therefore it is not possible to read anything in her expression. But it’s precisely this which gives the picture its power and causes me to turn back to it. The woman seems to float against this deep purple background and the image suggests something of another world. It makes me think of Sun-Ra and his ArkestRA, and psychedelic Afrofuturism: a really interesting and unexpected direction!*

The show was very expertly presented in a raw industrial-type space in the Kodak Passageway. This was an inspired choice of venue, as it offered an expanse of white space to offset the brilliant colour, and also the simple neutrality of a space that has no colonialist design, despite being in the middle of Cairo downtown. Curators Al Moaz and Zahran have put together a wonderful show with strong expertise and real sensitivity.

Ahmed Khaled is a filmmaker and visual artist working with media technologies. website

Amado Alfadni works at SOMA Art School and produces art in many meida, including painting, printmaking and collages website

*[I love SunRa; he’s important and under-rated – for more on Afrofuturism]

photos by The Art Traveller unless otherwise indicated; images of course copyright the artists, use only with THEIR permission.