Time to wear a mask?
"Geminates", a word invented by the artist to denote duplicity, was the title of an exhibition of photography showing for two weeks earlier this month at the Gezira Arts Centre in Zamalek. The exhibition displayed almost four dozen works by internationally renowned Egyptian photographer Ayman Lotfi, and was far too artistic to be viewed as a mere photography exhibition.
The show's theme was the masks and the way people sometimes need to wear a mask in life, symbolically speaking, for different reasons. "Sometimes we wear masks to deceive others, and sometimes we wear masks to protect ourselves from others, or to avoid painful experiences, or to please ourselves," Lotfi told Al-Ahram Weekly. Those people who tend to wear mask Lotfi calls 'Geminates'. The works exhibited were amazingly and perfectly produced. They featured women in different poses, wearing different kinds of masks, embroidered in odd ways or made of buttons or silver metal. In some photographs the mask was divided into two halves, one black and one copper; each was fantastically embroidered, and the looks of the woman behind the mask were malicious enough to be scary.
In another corner one could take a moment to relax with a daring model wearing a mask that covered the upper half of her face, and wearing a red scarf that looked like another mask to hide her hair, while her sexy black dress revealed all her hidden sexual desires. Other masks were weird enough to be made of steel or for the female model to look like a warrior, or were made of keyboard buttons to look more practical, or even of woolen threads so as to appear more fragile.
Lotfi, who graduated in Hebrew studies from the arts college in 1991, became interested in fashion design in his college days. He started out as a fashion designer, but in 1996, following his increased leaning towards the arts, he began a successful career as an art director for the Alamiya Advertising Agency.
In 1998 his career took another path when he began photographing his models and products for advertising.
"Since then I have discovered a whole new world in photography," he says. "I started to show at international photography exhibitions and won several prizes. I also took some online photography courses."
For the next few years Lotfi worked on commercial, travel, landscape and documentary photography, but he found a real passion for body art in 2006 when he began capturing human faces and tattooed bodies. Given the depth of the black background of his recent works, including those in this exhibition, the viewer is given the feeling that he is looking at a portrait rather than a photograph.
Lotfi's first solo exhibition was held at the Sawy Culture Wheel in 2006 and was entitled "The Other Side of Faces". Some of his works have been exhibited internationally in countries from Ethiopia to China, where he won the Grand Photography Master Award in the Contemporary International Photography Biennial in 2009 and the Best Photography Award at the 2010 biennial. Also in 2010 he was awarded the Gold Medal of Excellence in Experimental Photography in Austria
Back to the Geminates exhibition: "The idea came to mind recently when I had a shock in dealing with people with two opposite personalities; friends who at a certain moment suddenly turn into enemies, or politicians who change their stances just to gain power or popularity," he says.
The pictures in the exhibition are a new phase in arts photography, a genre that flourished in Europe about seven years ago. "This technique allows the photographer a wider space to express his own feelings and ideas, submitting his pictures to certain computer designing programs," Lotfi says.
But will this trend survive in Egypt now that documentary and photojournalism have been thrust to the fore by current political events?
"It is a trend like any other new trend in arts in general, and it should survive in a world of fierce competition and fast growing photography techniques. We definitely need to overcome the gap between us and the western world in this field," he says.
Along with the Geminates exhibition is a short video film with melodic background music to set the mood of the masked game for the audience. The film shows a woman whose face is covered by a mask that constantly changes while she is dancing, while she uses her umbrella not to protect herself from wind or rain but to fight people until the moment when she falls down with her broken umbrella and her masks scattered around her.
Asked why his models appear to have Western features, and cold looks, he pleads that they are all Egyptian except for one Russian. "It is how I work with them to set their mood and express different emotions. My models are all women in most of my exhibitions, because women are the analogue of life; they can reflect all emotions, weird and frank."
Lotfi is passionate about video art. He showed his video art work The Game in an exhibition on the theme of war held at the Cairo Opera House in 2010. He has produced four such video works, including A Visitor, which was screened in an Egyptian-Spanish media festival in Spain in 2008.
Lotfi's upcoming project is a video on the 25 January Revolution. Entitled The Survivors, it will be screened at the General Exhibition for Plastic Arts due to be held in April at the Cairo Opera House.
Along with Ayman Lotfi's show, another exhibition by 13 international photographers represented trends in contemporary photography.
The work of American advertising and travel photographer Clint Clemens reflects his passion for cars and sports, and specifically for any moving entity. His account list, as Gezira Arts Centre director Ayman Ellithi pointed out, includes commercial photography with Coke, Toyota, Prada, Porsche, Jaguar, and specialist bikes among many other international agencies. In a generous move, Clemens gave a series of free lectures during his short stay in Cairo to amateur and professional photographers on the new digital techniques in the world of photography today.
"This photography exhibition is a step forward to establish an international photography Biennial in Cairo, now that photography has gained a huge significance in the world and in the Arab World, especially after the Arab Spring revolutions," Ellithi said.
The photographs of Dariusz Klimczak from Poland are too artistic to digest in one tour. His four black and white pictures were like a storyboard or serialised caricature of life, and featured various caricatures of a man on long stilt legs. Situated in various outdoor spaces: by the sea in one picture, in a grassy field in another, it seems that it might be a representation of man's search for meaning in life, and in the meantime his satire of this simple truth.
Metzakis Manolis from Greece bring the theatre of the absurd to the exhibition with his photographs that are synonymous with a magic reality. One of them shows a group of women, all wearing baggy white dresses, surrounding a pregnant woman who is sitting helplessly on a hospital bed, where the sheet is also white, and all with a look of stark astonishment features on their faces. What has surprised them, rather oddly, is the simple ritual of a normal delivery, something that happens everywhere, every minute.
The four entries by Andrea Juan from Argentina also reflect a rare experience. Juan works with photography, digital video, graphic arts and installations and has developed a special passion for the subject of climate changes. Juan was able to accomplish this project by means of a grant by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which funded her journey to Antarctica where the photographs were shot. One features a model wearing a red suit and a red scarf that hides his or her face so that the identity of the model is thus disguised. In the other photographs are two mannequins, all dressed in white and with their faces covered in white, in a number of situations: sitting apart on the snow while their shadows meet in a point, or walking on a the snowy mounds as if strolling on the clouds. Is this the dire need for humans to connect, or is it the endless search for life that is so much of our existence on Earth?