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Saturday, 19 September 2020

Photography as storytelling: An interview with an award-winning Egyptian photographer

Nourhan Refaat Maayouf recently won the main prize at the 2016 Barclays L’Atelier, an annual South Africa-based contemporary art competition

Nourhan Tewfik, Monday 18 Jul 2016
Nourhan Refaat Maayouf
(Photo: Wasswa Donald)
Views: 8775
Views: 8775

A man sits on one side of a sofa, his face covered with a white mask, and he carries a yellow yarn ball in one hand. A white piece of clothing sits next to him, with tangled threads on top. A knitted piece along with two knitting needles rest upon the vacant part of the sofa, some how suggesting that it once housed the body of another person, possibly the man’s own partner.

In the next photo the scene is reversed. The man is gone, but his white shirt rests on the sofa. His partner has retaken her position on the sofa and has picked up her yellow knitted piece with the yarn ball resting on her lap. Her face is sheathed in a white mask and she’s knitting again, with threads from the yarn ball resting on her now vacant side.

In the third and last photo, both partners occupy the sofa. The man’s hand is wrapped around the woman’s shoulders as he holds on to the yarn ball, she to the knitted piece, and tangled threads bind them together. 

Such is a photo series titled July Tale which garnered its maker, Egyptian photographer Nourhan Refaat Maayouf, the main prize at the 2016 Barclays L’Atelier, an annual South Africa-based contemporary art competition, announced in a ceremony held last week.

Nourhan Refaat Maayouf is the only Egyptian artist to have reached the finalist shortlist this year and the only Egyptian to have won the main award in the competition's history. 

On miscommunication and human relationships

July Tale, as the notes accompanying the work reveal, tugs at "the complexity of a relationship. The attachment of two souls in spite of being blind and silent about their mutual issues."

The project was a product of what Maayouf calls a personal challenge she undertook in 2015 “to create one artwork a month for the duration of a year,” explains the artist in a recent phone interview with Ahram Online.

“I produced an amalgam of single photos and some photo series. In my single photos, I was very adamant on creating staged scenes, each with its own story,” she adds.  

In July of that year, Maayouf embarked on a maskmaking and photography project that sought to meditate on “the issue of communication in human relationships.” 

The final product was the July Tale project, in which she explored the “different understandings of and approaches to relationships. While in the past people remained with one another regardless of problems they suffered, nowadays people do not invest in preserving their relationships and let any issues get in the way.”

“In July Tale, the exhibited couple are clearly battling with miscommunication. On the one hand, the husband does not speak up about what’s going on within him, while the woman is metaphorically blind and does not really see him.”

But in spite of this communication problem, the couple, Maayouf explains, “remains attached to each other, which is manifested by the knitting process as a proof of the woman’s unceasing investment in the relationship. You also see that threads from the yarn ball bind them together as a further manifestation of this perpetual attachment. So that when one partner is gone, the other remains holding on to them.”

Maayouf first exhibited July Tale at the 26th Youth Salon held last year, and was this year encouraged to submit it to the Barclays L’Atelier's open call announced last January.

Good news arrived last month when Maayouf was informed that she had made it to the top 10 list of finalists. Maayouf then travelled to South Africa where she, along with the other finalists, attended a workshop in art professionalism and the opening of an exhibition held at Johannesburg’s Absa Gallery displaying this year’s submissions.

Maayouf won this year's Barclays L’Atelier's main prize and is due to spend a six-month residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2017, followed by a solo exhibition of her work at Absa gallery.

July Tale
July Tale (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

“I finished this artwork on 18 July 2015 and now, exactly one year later, I’m celebrating this major award for it. I didn’t seeing this coming at all, especially [since] all the other submissions were beautiful. But I felt so proud because I really love and appreciate my work.”

As Maayouf puts it, her work finds appeal among the audience because it “employs a global language without focusing on one specific culture. Rather I’m always keen that my concept photography and visual work speak to as many and diverse categories of people as possible.”


Maayouf was 21 when she first embarked on photography. She was in her senior year as a student at the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University, and had nurtured a passion for the arts, especially drawing, since an early age.  

Upon graduation, she obtained an Integrated Marketing Communications Diploma from the American University in Cairo (accredited by the International Advertising Association) and worked in the fields of social media and marketing research, pursuing her artistic vocation in parallel.

“At first, I was taking very generic photos of landscapes, portraits, etc. but step by step you figure out what is it that you want to capture with your camera exactly," she asserts.

“I made use of whatever tools were available. Even today, I still take photos in a small corner in my room, use an entry-level camera and depend on natural day-light; all very simple and accessible tools because I believe there’s much beauty in simplicity.”

Maayouf began with some experimental photography work, relying on wigs, masks, and dresses. “I’d set the camera on self-timer and enter the scene, posing as the subject of my own photo.”

As she cultivated her passion for staged photography, Maayouf spent 2013 and 2014 further exploring this genre through single shots.

“I start in a setting and at times do not necessarily have a specific idea to begin with, but keep experimenting and at the end come up with a concept. I really enjoy the process of creating a whole new scene and molding a story from scratch.”

Maayouf chooses to revisit two particular photos from this repertoire. The first is titled After the Party; it shows a girl whose two legs stretch out from under the bed where she seems to be hiding from society. A wig rests on the bed, a dress is thrown on the adjacent chair, and black heels are scattered on the floor.

“The idea was to question this issue of identity and show how the girl is at peace with herself the most when she’s under the bed, away from people, and how she wears the wig, dress and heels just to appeal to society.”

The other photo, titled Kitchen Tales, was also a staged scene. It took place in a kitchen setting and featured a girl standing next to a stove, with blood stains across the stove’s surface, a doll head coming out of a cooking pot, and a wig appearing from the sides of the cooker in what can be described as a very disturbing scene, “depicting a stolen childhood; one that is being killed.”

After the Party
After the Party (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Further experimentation

In 2015, Maayouf chose to take her passion for concept photography a step further, experimenting with photo series.  

One such project was titled Faces of September, and was part of the artist's 2015 challenge discussed above. This series of three photos features characters wearing masks, which Maayouf created herself thanks to a mask-making workshop she had attended. Each of the three created masks, Maayouf explains, sought to negotiate a certain concept.

“The first mask was covered with labels and sought to portray today’s hyper consumerism, showing how brands influence us and made us weak vis-à-vis our purchasing power. The second mask featured one eye adorned with flowers and which tugged at unuttered feelings. The third mask comprised a black and white half and another colorful one, and it represented what we call the Left Brain-Right Brain Conflict.”

As is true of most of her other works, this series was “inspired by a personal experience,” explains Maayouf.  

That Maayouf is invested in storytelling does not suggest rigidity when it comes to accepting other, varying readings of her work.

“If anything, I’m not spoon-feeding my concepts," she explains. "And this is the beauty of art. You create your own message and you make other people think and translate their own message out of it too.”

Kitchen Tales
Kitchen Tales (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

While it is apparent that Maayouf’s artistic vocation is steeped in experimentation, what unites her different projects is a profound interest in discoursing about human relationships, an interest that she has managed to tackle masterfully.

For the award-winning 26-year-old artist who also manages a full-time job as a communications manager, practice is the key word.

“I am a self-taught artist and only attended one course to help me with the techniques of photography. Everything developed through practice.” 

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