Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

To Egypt With Love

Gamal Nkrumah tells the tale of three cameras with Tahrir Square around the corner

When a story is based on history, we expect a fair amount of fidelity to the facts. And, as they say, the camera never lies. "I desperately wanted to capture the spirit of the revolution, but I craved for the unconventional camera angles. I yearned to be creative, and I did not want the usual snapshots," Alaa Taher told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Click to view caption

A decision was clearly taken early on that this version of the 25 January Revolution would be about the obvious love story between Egyptians and their country. The theme for the exhibition also took a contemplative twist: the inseparability of art and politics, a concept the artists point out was mirrored in the passion of the protesters in Tahrir Square. There is something liberating about depicting the power of the protesters in an exceptionally congruous period of the country's history.

The three photographers had come magically close to the mark.

The exhibition "To Egypt With Love" curiously combines the indelible blendings of youthful idealism and the more mature verisimilitude. The photos capture the ardour of the adolescent protesters and the animated ebullience of those in their early 20s injecting breath, blood and vivid colour into the emotional scenes in Tahrir Square during the 18 decisive days between 25 January and 11 February 2011.

However, they let rip quite a bit, as it happens. To their chargin they discovered every Thursday evening that ex- president Hosni Mubarak in nationwide televised addresses had no intention of stepping down. "Thank God it was well after midnight when Mubarak dropped his bombshell and I was unable to capture the depressed mood of the masses in Tahrir Square on camera," Taher told the Weekly.

Alaa Taher has a biology degree from the American University in Cairo and a Masters in epidemiology, public health from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. The 33-year-old hails from a family of artists. His grandfather was the legendary painter Salah Taher, and his equally distinguished painter father, Ayman Taher.

With 12 previous photographic and painting exhibitions in Egypt, Australia and the United States, Taher held a solo exhibition entitled "Glow" at the Cairo Opera Gallery last year and at the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum in 2009. His The Animal World in Ancient Egypt exhibition at CulNat Smart Village, 6 October governorate, was an instant hit.

Manic activism was matched by sentiments that often collided with each other. For Taher, there was no space for individual self-indulgence in Tahrir Square. The majestic lions of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge were an inspiration to Taher. "My equipment was heavy and capturing the high spirits of the people was a challenge. Everyone was enthusiastic and full of anticipation. Every face was full of hope. I had to choose the scene, the impetus that best reflected the essence of the historical moment."

Turning Tahrir Square from a battlefront into an arts exhibition is no easy task. These tensions of visualisation and firmness of mind make for a oneness of purpose. The political aims and ambitions of the protesters were not mutually exclusive.

"To Egypt With Love" is an exciting exhibition precisely because the artists appear to relish struggling with allegiances to modes of seeing the 25 January Revolution in a variety of expressions. The artists themselves are unaware of what Egypt is going to look like by the end of the protest movement. They seem to inhabit distinct emotional and psychological spheres.

The individuals protesting in Tahrir Square may be nothing to look at individually, but collectively their picture depicts a devotion to clear-eyed honesty captured by the cameras of the three photographers.

The all-too-human frames of revolutionary earnestness epitomise Egypt's newfound identity as a beacon of liberty, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and determination to convey an inward disposition that brims with a unique sense of optimism and an upward gaze.

Taher captures the crowds at a felicitous moment in their country's destiny. He monitors their quest for participating fully in the decision-making process of their country. The forces of idealisation and revolutionary zeal resolve not in violence but in the peaceful, non-violent quest for political reform. "To Egypt With Love" is a supremely emotional exhibition.

Although not a starry cast of professional photographers and seasoned artists, Alaa Taher, Bassem Samir and Hossam Hassan are in their salad days and have capably captured the ethereal grace of the mass of flesh squeezed into the confines of Cairo's most famous square. They gnarl at the constraints of youth, but are old enough to know better.

The trio projected the same steamy intensity of the Tahrir Square revolutionary experience onto their photography with more than a trace of tenderness.

The three artists create tiny nooks and crannies, a fancifully decorated perception of Tahrir Square in the grip of revolution.

All of their exhibition pieces appear faintly religious, not in a dogmatic sense but rather in the photographs' spiritual exuberance. The individuals depicted represent human souls craving merger with the supreme soul of the 25 January Revolution.

One way they have achieved this is through inspired and imaginative pairing with each other. They are seeking soulmates in the midst of the masses.

The "To Egypt With Love" exhibition is sprinkled with glimpses of whispered assignations that fill the tear gas- filled air of Tahrir Square rising above the din of the thunderous chants of the crowds.

The Egyptian flag features prominently in the exhibition, especially in the works of Alaa Taher. It flutters everywhere, and it lends the photographs exhibited a cosmic force unleashed that surpasses the mere mortal manifestations of the 25 January Revolution. The red of the flag is at its bloodiest, the white at its most incandescent, and the black at its blackest.

The ability to have your cake and eat it strikes me as the ultimate in temerity, and as an unlikely attribute of revolutionary enthusiasm. Still it makes for a delightful display of sensuous firebrand revolutionary activism. There are no meaningful parallels between Egypt's 25 January Revolution and other revolutions that have rocked the world -- Egyptian and non-Egyptian.

On top of all that, the visual effect of the exhibition is electrifying. Cynics will say that the trio of talented photographers is jumping on the revolutionary bandwagon. Presumably they take exception to the aberrant look of the show. Not that the show is ugly, far from it, it is simply unconventional.

The exhibition, an art installation with mixed media and conceptual photography, rather than conventional photographs, supplies the rhythmic impetus for the revolutionary demonstrations in Tahrir Square. It is a powerful symbol of the life cycle of Egypt, a country with seven millennia of civilisation.

"To Egypt With Love" is the first show initiated by SafarKhan Gallery with unusual revolutionary themes that have lined up a season full of challenge and promise despite the atypical circumstances of the gallery's survival in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. This particular exhibition is of paramount importance precisely because it is pioneering and all eyes are always on the trendsetters. Moreover, the brilliance of the show is episodic rather than cumulative. Surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- SafarKhan has elected not to display paintings, but rather a photographic exhibition.

The trio's works neatly coalesce. They share a delicacy and deliberateness, a sensitivity and sagaciousness, and a certain vibrancy and vividness. They are three very different artists with highly individual perspectives both in general and of the 25 January Revolution in particular, and a mere hint of the majesty of Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque at dawn.

A brushstroke wash and a lick of acrylic or oil paint is what SafarKhan is famous for. The attempt to dispel inherited complacency in the world of Cairene art galleries is telling. Egypt, after all, has come at last to the pleasures of revolutionary art, or more accurately to the pleasurable art of revolutionary activism.

Mona Said, co-proprietress with her mother Sherwet Shafie, of the SafarKhan Gallery, Zamalek, organised this joint photographic and artistic effort around the euphoria and sense of exultation that gripped Egypt in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution. "Yes, it was my idea," she says coyly. The sublimity of this exhibition is that it flies in the face of all that was exhibited before the revolution. The photographs are works of art designed to make one laugh and cry.

Nothing in "To Egypt With Love" looks concocted or contrived. It is a dazzling finale to the 18 days of anticipation and demonstration. The timing of the show is quite a drama. It is hard to say so after such a magnificently prolonged struggle for democracy and freedom of expression. The revolution brought the exultation of the Egyptian spirit back to life.

Whether in outline or colour the onlooker has time to puzzle over enigmatic photographs. Unrest and uprising turned out to be an opportunity for the three photographers in question. Everything about the exhibition is organised around the revolutionary activities that took place in Tahrir Square.

Even in Tahrir political opinions and ideological orientations were evidently divided, and that is also projected in the photographs on display.

I searched for images of the horrific moments when the hooligans cracked down on the demonstrators and the protesters in turn set fire to a number of landmark buildings associated with the Mubarak regime, including the headquarters of the former ruling National Democratic Party.

"I have always been into art photography, landscape and travel photography but I never considered myself a photojournalist," Taher explains. He appears to see everything in very clear terms.

To many SafarKhan Gallery regulars of a certain age, the primary draw will be to sample a radical display of revolutionary culture.

Only thereafter can they begin to relish portrayals such as those on display in SafarKhan Gallery by the trio of talented artists. The onlooker does not have to strive to perceive the relevance and poignant perspectives of the photographers. They do not paint a pessimistic picture of egg-throwing prankster protesters.

"Being different is thinking different," Hossam Hassan says. "My digital art explores the magic of our culture." He added that the hooligan tendencies of those who purported to support the Mubarak regime were tempered by the defiance of the demonstrators. "It is a revolution that generations to come will uphold as exemplary."

His favourite pastime is watching the world in motion and capturing the spirit of the moment. "Even when I am doodling or fiddling with my camera and photographic equipment I am listening to the mood of the masses, to the motion of revolutionary drift. It is the most inspiring revolutionary breakthrough in the history of Egypt, and perhaps even in the world."

He notes that the revolution was both the process of birth and rebirth. This exhibition, the artists insist, is a process of exploration in its early stages. It is the first of its kind in Cairo. It is a typical creation of the 25 January Revolution at once both patriotic and compassionate.

This is cultural history in action captured by the camera. It is easy to prattle condescendingly about some of the less palatable aspects of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. And, there will be some commentators who will be sceptical and others who will be deliberately triumphalist. The photographic works on display at SafarKhan are simultaneously a tendentious piece of Egyptian history and a tribute to the grand popular entertainment displayed by the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Taher gives a graphic and politically astute portrayal of the protesters.

"Abstract is my keyword. Nature is my inspiration and imaginations are my basic elements." When the history of SafarKhan Gallery will be recounted by generations to come, the historian documenting its most illustrious achievements will have to pay special attention to this landmark photographic exhibition.

What does it take to be Egyptian? The photographs speak for themselves. The images they recapitulate and present a real artistic challenge, an investigation into the soul of a nation, as well as learning something about the shared popular excitement of Egyptians at a particular historical juncture.

The artists urge us to understand our interdependence, to make the transition from the "me" to "we". Me is Egypt and We are Egyptians, and me and we converge and melt into one.

Bassem Samir, speaking from personal experience, describes how this part of the whole Tahrir Square experience presents an arduous problem of authenticity. This is reflected in the dynamics of the aesthetics projected in the photographs on display. It is as if Egypt itself were wondering whether to face the world and its own specific part in the global arena, sizing up its dangers with a brave heart that pulsates to the beat of good citizenship, public spirit and national loyalty. The camera is the instrument whereby civism is inextricably intertwined with patriotism.

The three photographers concur that the very picture of youngsters enthusiastically cleaning the streets of Cairo, painting the pavements was unprecedented. It is a phenomenon that cannot be belittled or ignored. There is something powerful and dutiful about these symbolic acts of practical devotion to the love of country. And what is more is that these adolescents scrupulously avoided the heroic.

"The camera was my first tool and hence photography became my passion," Samir told the Weekly. "My work in my opinion is very personal. Connecting deeply with the social community and the drastic social and political changes following the 25 January Revolution. The attitude of the Egyptian people in general has changed for the better. A positive and constructive attitude now prevails," Samir notes.

Clearly the photographer cannot recreate the exact picture of Tahrir Square during the momentous 18 days. Yet the images of modern and relaxed intimacy can undoubtedly be recorded for posterity.

"As an architect I find myself in direct contact with static but creative designs," he extrapolates. And, unlike an architectural creation, the very spirit of the revolution cannot be cantilevered.

"My work is like a visual journal to me. I treat my work like an artist treats his canvas," Samir muses. He lays the foundations of his work on the excitement, vigorous, classless appeal of the protesters in Tahrir Square. The photographers' images dramatise the very intensity and spontaneity of the demonstrators. "Layers of brainstorming research, a conceptual approach rather than aesthetics," as Samir so aptly puts it. "Every corner had unique masterpieces crafted by true Egyptian souls," he muses.

The Tahrir Square experience was the most inspiring experience I have ever witnessed," Samir says. The political determination infused Tahrir Square with a special "vibe and energy" Samir insists.

The photographers, like the protesters, express themselves as they think. Samir, architect and freelance photographer, describes himself as an "apolitical" person. "I am not into politics," he explains. Yet, he took to the streets with his photographic equipment. "I didn't understand what people were talking about. I wanted to understand what they wanted. The media coverage was very confusing.

"But this was a learning experience as far as I am concerned." With a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Alexandria University in June 2006, he still had much to learn about his country and its people. "I peered from the rooftop of my building and saw the protesters in the streets. I looked at the graffiti and was horrified by the looters in Shehab Street, Mohandessin, not far from where I live in Midan Libnan. I didn't want to take portraits of people. I wanted instead to capture the general picture, the spirit of the revolution."

Samir was caught unaware. He majored in architecture and his experimentation with photography, photo-shop and architecture is a magical combination that won him many accolades. He received the Al-Thani Award of Qatar for photography in 2005 and again in 2010. He has also been actively engaged with the African Digital Art project. And, he exhibited his photographs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in July 2010. "I am not a documentary photographer. I am a conceptual artist," he extrapolates nonchalantly. "The most poignant and lasting impression was a placard proclaiming non-violent, peaceful revolution painted boldly in pink."

"To Egypt with Love"

Opens 9 March

SafarKhan Gallery

6 Brazil St


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