The elephant vanishes
Venus Fouad makes a virtual journey to a land of colour and charm
There has been a recent rise in the popularity of photography, both as a documentary tool and an artistic genre. The boost mobile phones have given to public appreciation of this medium is evident: the prolific documentation of the 25 January Revolution is just one example of it.
In recent years, foreign cultural centres have been inviting Egyptian photographers to events and activities abroad. The "Thailand Through Egyptian Lenses" exhibition by photographer Koukla Rifaat is the fruit of such cooperation
Rifaat travelled to Thailand in February 2012 on a trip organised by the Thai Embassy in Cairo. The journey culminated in the exhibition at the Cairo Opera House and a book entitled The Dance of Life: the Journey of an Egyptian Young Woman in Thailand.
Koukla Rifaat graduated from the Modern Sciences and Arts (MSA) University in Cairo in 2007 with a degree in mass communication and advertising. She studied photography at the SPEOS Institute in Paris and won awards from the Sawi Culturewheel in 2004 and 2005. Her work has been featured in Photo of the Month in the prestigious blog Photo Burst.
Since 2008, Rifaat has branched out into documentary photography. A journey to Kerala and Delhi, India in 2009 resulted in an exhibition on the art of Kathakali, also at the Cairo Opera House. Since then, she has been travelling the world in search of new adventures.
Rifaat's style combines artistic and documentary techniques, producing a genre that blends photojournalism with storytelling. Speaking of her current exhibition, she says it was an attempt to shed light on different cultures and creeds.
"My aim is to give the public a chance to relive what I experienced first hand, to bring them close to the life of people who live in different societies. I want to give people a chance to learn about the creeds and cultures and arts of other people, so that they can transcend the gap, no longer viewing others as mere strangers living in distant tribal or ethnic groups," she says.
Before travelling to Thailand, Rifaat had seen images of the country resplendent with elephants, beautiful colours and great beaches. When she arrived there, however, it seemed to her to be much more than a popular honeymoon destination.
"I learnt more about the culture and society, because I had the opportunity to observe the things casual visitors would miss. This is what I tried to capture with my camera."
On several visits to temples and mosques she was impressed by the religious and social harmony of the country. She also fell in love with the variety of dancing styles -- Khon, Wai Khru and other routines -- which are all thematic, part of a long-standing theatrical tradition.
"The dances embody the beauty and peace that are so deep-rooted in culture. They also reflect respect for the individual, which is the essence of Thai culture."
One thing that attracted her attention was the fact that the national anthem was played on loudspeakers twice a day. The Thai people would stop what they were doing and listen to the anthem. Other things reminded her of Egypt.
"There are things in common, such as the importance of the family and the difference in roles between men and women, even the sebai-sebai attitude, meaning that everything is just fine."
In Dance of Life Rifaat relates the story of her journey in Thailand, maintaining that everything she saw was a dance of sounds, colours and nature.
"I felt that with every step I took I was cutting small pieces of a mosaic which I would put together later to make a bigger picture of Thailand, a country like no other."
Thailand is not the only country Rifaat has documented in recent years. Previously she travelled to the magical island of Bali in Indonesia, where she photographed religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals.
In 2010, Rifaat climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the Right to Climb Initiative, which publicised the needs of people with special needs in Egypt.
Rifaat's exhibition is one of few artistic endeavours that aim to rediscover human similarities everywhere. Let us hope there will be many more such documentary adventures.