Physical documents are as ancient as human civilisation and, although we currently live in a hyper-digitised world, paper is still attached to every aspect of our lives.
Under the title “Papers and Pain”, Ayman Lotfi’s latest exhibition recently closed at ZagPick, the brand new branch of Zamalek Art Gallery. Located in Beverly Hills, Sheikh Zayed, it is the third to be established during the last five years.
The exhibition featured over 20 pictures in a large size. A prolific artist, Lotfi, the winner of the State Incentive Award in 2017 among other prizes, is known for his thematic and experimental fine art photography.
This is his second exhibition at a private gallery in Egypt though, through a long career that started in the 1990s, he exhibited many times at Ministry of Culture and Opera House spaces as well as abroad, notably at the Venice Biennale.
For many years, private galleries had neglected photography because of the alleged lack of interest among their visitors but by making it a regular feature of its yearly schedule, the Zamalek Art Gallery managed to reverse this trend, with the Picasso Art Gallery later exhibiting experimental photography by Khaled Abul-Dahab and Habbi Khalil.
“I have been toying with the concept of paper documents for almost two years,” Lotfi told Al-Ahram Weekly. “A piece of paper can disturb you so much it prevents you from getting any sleep at night. It can also make you happy and excited — if is a long-awaited or unexpected letter. In the world of politics, wars can erupt between countries because of a piece of paper.”
The 1991 graduate of Ain Shams University, who participated in the Beirut Photo Festival this year, said he made many sketches to figure out how to visualise the concept of the paper in various surreal modes. It wasn’t until 1998 that Lotfi began photographing as part of his fashion design career, only to fall in love with the camera.
As well as being striking, the fine art prints (all 130 cm by 130 cm) trigger curiosity as they reveal documents in many symbolic formats — as costume (head cover), wings in flight or wallpaper.
In one picture, a woman wearing a lock with a key on her chest appears with a battered typewriter, which she seems to be using as a helmet to protect herself, while a small painting featuring a half-opened sardine can hung on the wall. Such contradictory elements make the image complex and somewhat difficult to take in, but it mirrors the complicated psychology of contemporary women today.
Cerebral inventiveness abounds. A map of the world is used as the background to a portrait of a woman with divine features. Across two paintings, a female figure is covered with Arabic calligraphy. A smiling woman has two elaborately decorated horns.
The pictures were shot in a studio, but the backgrounds of some of them feature surrealist landscapes from different countries. The models — all female, reflecting Lotfi’s early work as a fashion designer — look more Caucasian than Oriental.
“The stereotypical symbol of Egypt is a decent, simple woman nicknamed as Bahia, with a scarf covering her head. I try to propose a different image. The human figure is a symbol for the pulse of life. A picture vacant of a human element is like arid land. It is hard to use a model,” he continued. “Sometimes, I ask my models to freeze, to give me no impressions, so that I can add other elements to the picture, and it is quite a hard task.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.