Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Light dancing

Rania Khallaf appreciates Khaled Abul-Dahab’s light paintings

Light dancing

In a world teeming with imagery, to see colour in a clear night sky is a rare pleasure indeed. “Spectra” (2-19 December) bravely played with light and motion, aiming to uncover the unseen. This is the first photography exhibition of the acclaimed photographer Khaled Abul-Dahab to be held at the Picasso Gallery. One of the most prestigious private-sector galleries in Cairo thus sets a precedent and breaks the preconception that photography doesn’t sell. 

But this work is as accomplished as the best painting. Whether photographing landscapes or urban scenes, using Profoto equipment, the photographer relies on long, one- to four-second exposures. Motion blur and painting with light demonstrate the experimental potential of the art. Rhythm is everything. “It is partly the influence of playing drums,” Abul-Dahab told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I learned a lot from this unique relationship between music and motion photography.” 


Light dancing

“Spectra” also celebrates Abul-Dahab’s return after 11 years abroad. His 11th solo exhibition, it is the first to be held in Egypt. Abul-Dahab worked as a professional photographer in, among other places, Dubai and London, where he won third place in digital art at the 2015 London Art Biennale. At 38, Abul-Dahab (who studied mechanical engineering and worked as a corporate photographer) has photographed creatively since his teens. But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that, working for a photography company, he decided “this could be my eternal career.” 

Long exposures became his forte. “Between zero and one second, there are worlds we do not usually see,” he says; “a wide range of events and subjects, including ourselves”. In one, huge 2.25 by 1.5 m image of Al-Muizz Street, the passers by dissolve magically into the historical buildings. “The selection process of the pictures for this show was no easy task,” Abul-Dahab says. “Some shots forced me to print them in large sizes like those of Al-Muizz Street and the popular singers, because they are rich in detail.” And indeed the spectres emanating from the photos were all around us.

“This exhibition represents different experiences in diverse cultures in the Gulf countries, Tibet, the Himalayas and other places — the spectra of scenes and people I met and photographed,” he said. Time, one of his masterpieces, is a portrait of an old Jordanian woman, her wrinkles showing the passage of time on her skin. “I don’t see landscape as it is, I rather see the energy hidden within and reflected by objects,” he added. “Spectra are more than just bands of colour; they are the imagination, the spirituality of the mood imposed by the captured subject.” It is also the decision to give up his nomadic lifestyle working commercially under pressure: “Though my career was very successful, I felt that it was not a real life. This is why I decided to come home.” 


Light dancing

Also on show is a sequence of 13 small prints of successive stages of sunset on the shore of Lake Qaroun in Fayoum, cinematic, poetic and pastel-like. “Sunset is different from one place to another even at the same time of year. I see the sky as a moving painting, an endless source of enjoyment and meditation. I tell my students, ‘Do not take your tripod and leave once the sun is gone. You should wait until the ultimate sunset, when the sky is literally black.’ At this time, 20 minutes after sunset, there is an astonishing array of colours in the sky.” And from the very slow movement of the sun to a taxi tunnelling past close-parked cars in Alexandria, motion at the widest range of speeds is the unifying theme of the exhibition. The only exception is a 2x1.25 m portrait of a Tibetan boy wielding a sword in traditional costume.

Speed and size vary, and so does the palette. Some pictures are in subdued, others in bright colours. In one picture a female zar singer wears a red galabeya against a brown background, with pools of light highlighting her motion. In another Nubians in white are swaying in a Sufi ritual and rays of light complement the dance. One picture demonstrates Abul-Dahab’s compositional prowess, with rows of boats captured one above the other giving a dreamy, surreal mood. 


Light dancing

“The number of boats was originally small,” he says. “I captured this picture in Abu Qir, Alexandria, where the fishing industry is dying out. However, the energy of the fishermen, who have been there for hundreds of years is evident in the water.” The artist perceived the boats in vertical layers, then adjusted his technique to achieve the desired effect. “The mind captures the picture first, and then technique comes next. There are no limits on creativity. A picture can break the boundaries of a painting. A painter will never be able to see one subject in 20 parts during one second. Photographers definitely see more images than painters. It’s about how you use your tools.” 

A large, dark man with an afro stylishly dressed in black, Abul-Dahab is as odd-looking as his pictures. He hails from Nubia, and seems to have the genes of a nomad. At certain times, he will simply decide to take off, picking up his camera bag and going where his feet will take him. He is good at publicising his work (the turnout was remarkable), and he was the commissar of a significant photography event at the Fine Arts Palace in 2011. Working with the then head of the Plastic Arts Sector Ashraf Reda, Abul-Dahab organised workshops, a contest and an exhibition featuring 153 participants. 

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