Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Heissa Island unveiled

Karina Al Piaro told Reham El-Adawi about her photographic workshop on a Pharaonic island

Heissa Island unveiled
Heissa Island unveiled
Al-Ahram Weekly

I recently reconnected with the British photographer and artist Karina Al Piaro for her American University in Cairo artist talk at the Oriental Hall, off Tahrir Square. The topic was “a narrative of creativity and heritage” spanning a century of camera activity on the Nile, but more importantly Al Piaro announced her new photographic workshop project called Khema (Tent), which started this month. Emanating from the desire to return to the roots of the photographic art, Khema – held on the Nubian island of Heissa – is the next stage in the artist’s visual narrative of the Nile. 

The first of its kind in the region, the project will focus on “further pioneering the medium” along pathways of creative visualisation, through both the creation of dialogue about photography as an artistic expression and a conscious revival of the roots of the medium itself, re-exploring the old processes that pioneered the craft and technology as we know it today. It is a little known fact that the medium of photography, the visual technology we know today, was predominantly pioneered on the Nile in the mid 1800s. A fledgling discipline in the 1850s, the process evolved experimentally on the Nile and has since developed into the respected international art form it is today. Some of the most iconic photographs, the earliest of all time, were taken at Egypt’s southernmost frontier of Nilescapes known as Nubia. It was on the sacred Island of Bigeh at the heart of Nubia, the original site of Philae Temple before the flooding and the creation of Lake Nasser, that Francis Frith, one of the most celebrated photographic pioneers took the first photograph of this colossal structure in 1867. 

Intersecting with what has become known as the golden age of exploration on the Nile, photography and its pioneers represented a new frontier: a new language, visual process and technology enabling the first representational recordings in history of the Nile heritage, and triggering its preservation. We owe the medium of photography and its initial pioneers a debt of gratitude for their enormous efforts, without which the millennia of ancient heritage on the Nile would arguably still be under the sands, lost to time. Carrying the torch of these preservationist efforts and functioning in the spirit of those pioneers, a decade ago Al Piaro decided to return to this legendary source. Leaving behind the contemporary world of commercial photography in London and Paris, Al Piaro recognised the necessity for the revival, reclamation and preservation of this precious visual heritage.

Studying the medium at a time when negative film, also known as analogue was still the dominant form of photographic technology, Al Piaro states that digital technology had not even been conceptualised, so affectively her visual process roots are steeped in the old processes that were pioneered here. 

Assisting the National Geographic Magazine in Egypt, Al Piaro set out on a goal to develop a personal, immersive body of work on the river. With the advent of the Arab Spring, however, it became increasingly clear that the focus needed to be on the strengthening of the preservation of photographic archival visual heritage, on pioneering photographic narratives reflecting the core energy of the region. Al Piaro says, “The sense of what I felt had magnetically pulled me back on the Nile, the never changing, the constant positive omnipresence of light needed to be expressed though the medium that most celebrated it.” Bringing the story into the present, Al Piaro says she is honoured that a decade on, the local community of Heissa has welcomed the concept of Khema to their island. Khema in this sense means the gathering space, the point of convergence, the ceremonial meeting place; the sense and spirit of home that will now be hosted on the island of Heissa.  

Heissa Island is arguably one of the last pure sanctuaries of the river in this territory and a place to which Al Piaro had kept returning repeatedly with her camera, often for many months of sustained study. Khema will represent an opportunity for another statement of contemporary rebirth of photography in the region, which will come from a profound sense of ethical responsibility towards a Nile community that has supported the photographer for many years. Throughout the Khema project, Al Piaro will be mentoring a local photographer from the island, Annory Sabri, and together with Mohamed Elmaymony, a highly respected professional photographer from Cairo, focusing on old process photography. The workshop project is taking place with the support of Metro Imaging, London, one of best photographic laboratories in the world and a rare example of a laboratory that continues to support old technologies. 

The core concepts of the workshop include creative visualisation with the camera and an understanding of the value of the visual heritage of photography. These foundation concepts will be reflected in the opportunity to experience directly and experiment with the original old processes of photography, with darkroom techniques that are rarely found in the contemporary world and experimenting with the camera to create positive visual narratives. The workshop project, continuing through January 2017, will also be hosting artist talks by experts in the field which will form a heritage archive legacy for the island. Al Piaro hopes her work will encourage new eyes to reclaim and expand on the old story, and she will be encouraging both a local and international audience to regard the Pharaonic island of Heissa  as a destination point for professional creative photography. 

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