I took myself off for another day of traipsing around Cairo’s gorgeous Downtown district to catch the rest of the Photoweek photography festival. I wanted to enjoy the Downtown which is exactly my taste: big, bustling, exciting and very architecturally splendid, with all kinds of interesting shops. I love that many of the old shop facades are still there, which makes the streetscape really interesting and varied. I didn’t actually buy anything, but that wasn’t the objective.
Cairo Photo Week 2021 Photography Festival at the Factory and Access Art Space
The exhibition at the Consoleya wasn’t open when I went, which was really a shame because it was an exhibition of photographs taken by cinematographers. Some years ago, I curated CINEPHOTO, an exhibition of still photographs by cinematographers and film directors for London Photomonth, which you can see here. It was an exciting project to curate, and I was interested to see what they would have done with it in Cairo.
My highlights of #CairoPhotoWeek2021 “Depth of Field.”
The large complex of The Factory at 6 El Nabrawy Street hosted many exhibitions under its roof. I saw the first one in a semi-derelict space; I’m not exactly clear what kind of place it was. I had a feeling it might be an old butcher shop, but I’m not really sure. However, it did have a problem with lighting. I’m assuming they did bring in lights at a certain point, but there weren’t any when I was in there. So I had to make do with the filtered daylight that came in and availed myself of the light on my phone. Anyway, it was really quite impressive the way it was laid out in the space. I particularly liked this piece, although the subject is disturbing and sad.
The Factory’s main spaces boasted a lot of very different work, all of it very high quality. I particularly liked the show “Grain” – a show of analogue photography. It was great to see the craft of analogue is alive and well. I loved it all, but especially the work of Aya Chirki and Wessam Wafik.
I liked the exhibition as a whole because they just didn’t go in for endless numbers of extremely large-scale printed photographs. This is something that you see many in art fairs and Biennials, and they can be really overwhelming without any reason for being there. Many of the pictures in Photoweek were printed on a smaller scale, A3, A2, even A4, which allowed for a much more intimate relationship with the work.
I do think that large-scale photography can be great if you’re Andreas Gursky or Gregory Crewdson. Still, it doesn’t always suit the picture, and I think the photographers and curators in this Festival understood this.
I like the exhibition of photo series by the Egyptian students of the Danish School of Media & Journalism very much. Many of them are poignant and indicate some strong talent in the coming generation of Egyptian photographers.
It would have been nice to have had a comprehensive catalogue of the Festival. I hope that next Festival there will be a sponsor who will produce this because I would pay some good money. I would have loved to have had a catalogue of this Festival. I mean, I collect art books and catalogues, so I’m a guaranteed customer! Of course, there’s part of me that thinks, really, I just need to go back to Cairo and start taking pictures again and then in two years, I can be part of the Festival as well. Well, never say never. I’m happy with the images I’ve taken since I’ve been in Cairo. Cairo has given me my creative mojo back. My image-making creativity has been entirely in abeyance since I started writing professionally and doing my Ph.D. Still, I’ve fallen back in love with the image and with my ability and desire to create the image.
‘Photo Kegham of Gaza: Unboxing’ Curated by Kegham Djeghalian assisted by Alia Rady.
After the Factory, I went across the road to Access Art Space, the new name of the former TownHouse gallery, which I remember visiting years ago.
The exhibition addressed the photographic legacy of Kegham Djeghalian, who was the first photographer of Gaza. It is put together by his grandson, also Kegham Djeghalian. The exhibition is a work of archival research that explores the life and times of the elder Kegham as a person and a photographer. Through both, it reveals Gaza’s visual history.
Djeghalian has curated a selection of photographs by his grandfather about the family’s life in Gaza and Palestine. It is essentially a large-scale collection of pictures taken by a skilled photographer of his own community and family. Of course, many of the pictures look so much like my own family photographs from the same era.
Until they don’t. As I walk through the rooms, I see how the smiling family gatherings are interspersed with images of the family being expropriated and moved. Barbed wire appears in the shots.
And It really struck me that what this exhibition really is about, is that everybody is vulnerable. There is something that happens all the time to people: displacement, injustice, expropriation. And loss. It’s not something that happens to ‘them.’ It is a very human story. I’m not going to get into the Rights and Wrongs of the politics of that part of the world. I don’t really feel qualified to talk about it. Still, I can tell you my response to this exhibition, which was, quite frankly, devastation.
Can’t say that was really an emotion that I wanted to feel on that sunny day, my last outing in Cairo, but you know what, it’s better to have it than to not have it. I am so glad I saw this impressive, humbling installation.*
It’s interesting because everybody has family photographs. I’ve known a few friends who’ve done fascinating works with their family photographs. I’m going to name-check my good friend Vanessa Lowe who did incredible work based on her father’s photos when he was a young man, which details the first and second generation of Chinese immigrants to Vancouver. It’s an incredible collection, and Vanessa made unique prints out of it. I’ve been encouraging her to do a book; so far, it hasn’t happened. So I guess I’ll keep nagging.
When you think about the personal archives that we have, the fact is that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’ – none of us are ordinary, and our families aren’t ordinary. But sometimes, out of these archives, you can tell a story that has resonance for the whole world.
The show was beautifully laid out. The space is terrific, the light, airy atmosphere acting as a relief from the pictures’ increasing claustrophobia.
Cairo Photo Week has a great future
Based on what I saw, Cairo Photo Week has a great future. My main takeaway from Cairo Photo Week 2021 is that it was a festival that incited the viewer to contemplate their own humanity. So many intense, wonderful and moving explorations of the human. From Kegham Djeghalian’s photo archive to Amadou Alfadni’s supersaturated explorations of Sudanese history to Bahia Shehab’s portraits of blind women musicians, and so much more. It has been exciting, challenging and profound.
Oh, and you know what I said about not buying anything on my jaunt around Downtown? I lied; turns out Access Artspace has a really lovely shop.
So it seems my Art Travels in Cairo are at an end, at least temporarily. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a place – creatively, artistically, socially – as much as I have Cairo. Admittedly I have had a decent amount of time to get to know it and find my rhythm. Indeed, I’ll sling my bag over my shoulder again and head back for more Egyptian art travelling.
* Exhibition Text for ‘Photo Kegham of Gaza: Unboxing’ Curated by Kegham Djeghalian
I wanted to reproduce this text in full because I think it is essential both for what is says and how it describes the project.
A toddler survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Kegham Djeghalian reaches Syria and grows up across the cities of the Levant. When he comes of age he moves to Palestine and works in a series of jobs, including a tattoo practice for the soldiers of the British battalion. In Jaffa he marries Zevart Nakashian and they decide to settle in Gaza, where he establishes his “Photo Kegham” in 1944, the first photography studio in Gaza. The studio gradually evolves into a key institution in Gazan society. Mentoring and supporting young photographers, Kegham contributes to the democratization of the photographic practice in the city, and becomes widely regarded as its godfather. For almost four decades Kegham steadily inscribed the photographic history of Gaza through his social, official, political, documentary and studio photography during its turbulent transition periods under the British mandate, the Egyptian rule and the Israeli occupation of 1956 and of 1967. Declining to leave Gaza at any point in time since 1944, he passed away in 1981.
Three red boxes of negatives, some family-owned photo memorabilia, scattered stories about my grandfather Kegham, and the knowing that his photographic archive in Gaza is practically unattainable to me, that is all I had of his legacy when I started this project. I unboxed the negatives and documents, scanned and examined them, but the labor of creating or curating this small family archive still seemed colossal to me. Mulling over this body of photographic material, I came to realize that the notion of ‘a disrupted history’ is key to my research; the disrupted history of Gaza, Palestine, Armenia, the story of Kegham’s diaspora, and finally the precarious survival and inaccessibility of his negatives and photographic archive. Running the risk of decontextualizing, I chose to give up trying to identify people I couldn’t recognize or trying to date these photographs. Instead, I opted to engage in a raw confrontation with the photographs by adopting Foucault’s notion of “surface of appearance.” I started inhabiting the photographic visuals and identifying their signifiers as a method to read the stories of both my grandfather and Gaza.
This kind of “disruptive” reading generates a genuine ambiguity that is fruitful, though unsettling for the work. I embraced this ambiguity in order to articulate the affective and the nostalgic, but also to acknowledge the disrupted narratives and contexts of Kegham’s story and his photos, all of which might seem to paradoxically function as an anti-archival practice. This is demonstrated in the deliberate absence of captions, descriptions or dates on the displayed work, except for one section in the installation of the exhibition.
The displayed body of work is divided into 4 thematics; the first two attempt to map out Kegham’s professional practice and his socio-political engagement as unveiled by the three boxes of negatives I have at hand. The third is a nostalgic indulgence in his (my) family’s story, which also serves as a kind of reading Gaza’s socio-geographic reality in mid 20th century. The fourth thematic displays some of Kegham’s key photographs mediated through a ‘Zoom Call’ between Cairo and Gaza, an exchange which also served to expose the complex problematics in accessing his archival work in Gaza; another facet of a disrupted history.
This exhibition is a first, and perhaps naïve, confrontation with a “disrupted archive;” a representation of the work in typology rather than chronology, where historiography becomes secondary, yet inherently alluded to through the subjects, objects and spaces shown in the photographic material. The focus of this research is on Kegham, the person and his practice as a photographer, through both it becomes a non-linear reading of Gaza. A work in progress, this exhibition is by no means a comprehensive study or presentation of Kegham the photographer of Gaza, but just a preliminary expression of confronting a decimal of his body of work.
In memory of Kegham Djeghalian Senior and in dedication to my family