The quiet passion of photographer Sonbol graces Warsaw gallery

Ati Metwaly, Sunday 10 Jun 2012

Situated in the heart of Warsaw, Smolna Gallery hosts an exhibition of works by Sherif Sonbol, a contributor to Ahram Online, among Egypt's greatest photographers and an artist with remarkable sensitivity

Gallery Smolna, Warsaw, Poland displaying works by Sherif Sonbol

Sherif Sonbol is known for his large portfolio of works that touch and inspire, testifying to his peculiar and distinctive artistic sensitivity regardless the subject of his photographs. With almost 20 illustrated books under his belt, Sonbol examines the history of Egypt through its architecture and traditions, always searching for links that shape the Egyptian conscience, from the Pharaonic to modern days.

"Due to its geographical positioning, Egypt has been a place where religions began, and where numerous cultures were born," comments Sonbol, adding that Egyptians tend to cut out several centuries of their history, which mark the years of Alexandria's glory and the dominance of Christianity.

Sonbol drew inspiration from the photographic works by Antoun Albert, Emil Makram and Mohamed Youssef before defining his own independent and powerful artistic path. A self-taught photographer who left a rising career in an insurance company to follow his passion, Sonbol started working at Al-Ahram under Antoun's auspices and later on became a chief photographer at Al-Ahram Weekly as well as at the Cairo Opera House. Sonbol uses natural light, with no additional filters or corrections and does not use flash light in closed spaces. Today in his 50s, hundreds of Sonbol's pictures are published across Al-Ahram publications.

It is through photography that Sonbol rediscovers an important historical continuum that he believes is encoded in all Egyptians. Mulid! Carnivals of Faith (2001), Mamluk Art: The Splendor and Magic of the Sultans (2001), The Pharaohs (2002), 40 Pyramids of Egypt and their Neighbours (2005), The Churches of Egypt (2007) are among numerous illustrated books that allow the photographer and traveler to capture the wholeness of Egypt soaked in over 5000 years of history, and a multitude and richness of traditions.

As his name grew to prominence, Sherif Sonbol was the first Egyptian photographer to have a photography book published. He is also the only Egyptian photographer to have had his works exhibited at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre, in 2003. Since his remarkable success in New York, Sonbol held a number of exhibitions in Egypt as well as in Germany and Finland.

"Egypt. The Crossroad of Faiths. Mulid, Festivals of Faith," is Sonbol's first exhibition in Warsaw's Smolna Gallery, part of the House of Culture, an important cultural centre in the city.The exhibition opened 28 May and will run until the end of August. Whirling dervishes, puppeteers, religious processions, mosques, shots from Cairo's Coptic hanging church, Luxor's festivities, people celebrating, children's laughter, are testimony to the complex mix of traditions that constitutes the fabric of Egyptian society and the soul of Egyptians.  

Sonbol is not merely documenting; he draws centuries of life and experience that shaped people, their habits and interactions, within architectural and traditional signatures and an unfolding history. Naturally, Sonbol's artistic sensitivity sees beyond the buildings and people. Being an agile observer, he finds in each object, whether it is a human or a building, a crossroad of an accumulated past.

But Sonbol's work is not limited to architecture, traditions, people and cultural celebrations. In parallel, with camera in hand, for two decades already, Sonbol moves between the Cairo Opera House's long corridors, his dark shadow emerging backstage. Silent and thoughtful, it is his seemingly reticent attitude that creates a mysterious distance between Sonbol and those who cross his path. Moving wordlessly, he lets the artist create movement which then he captures in a fraction of a second, a tiny time parameter which in fact exposes the whole truth about the object. Though not many have access to Sonbol's bubbling dynamism, hidden behind the camera, and his great sense of humor, thousands of seconds captured by his lens meet praise from artists performing at the Cairo Opera House and their audiences alike.

Sonbol gave a large number of his photographs for a book about the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and other publications on the history of the Opera House. Dozens of his photographs of ballet and dance performances by the Ballet Company and visiting troupes decorate the walls backstage at the Cairo Opera House. Ballet photography was the core of Sonbol's exhibition in the Lincoln Centre, described by New York Times reviewer Anna Kisselgoff as "stunning and revelatory".

"To capture the motion of a dancer is not a pure technical act, but requires a feeling for what the picture will express," explains Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, with whom Sonbol has worked for many years. "Sherif has the gift of understanding the essence of a dancer and the context in which he is moving. This is why his shots are unrepeatable," Kamel adds.

Ines Abdel Dayem, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, finds a particular signature in all of Sonbol's works. "Sherif is very unique, exceptional," she comments. "Each of his photos, whether depicting ballet, opera or an orchestra has a very strong artistic vision. I consider him among the best photographers I have ever met and his work goes far beyond time, capturing the best and most truthful moments."

No wonder Mounir Kenaan, renowned Egyptian painter, praised Sonbol's photography saying, "An artist has reached the pinnacle of his profession when his work can be recognised without his signature being written."

Sonbol keeps observing and capturing artists, ballet dancers, maestros, musicians, opera singers and dozens of other performers. He witnessed their growth, successes and learned their history and little secrets. Sonbol's lens moves beyond the performance; he becomes the artists' shadow and offers to them a mirror of their life captured in one frame. Equally, when shooting people, his object's spirit is always a major factor striking the viewer looking at Sonbol's portraiture.

Though dancers are among Sonbol's major inspirations, his dynamism and artistic versatility continues to touch on many subjects and thematic triggers. On the one hand, he recaptures history through its architectural documents and gives them a new revisited life; on the other, moving between centuries, cultures and traditions, his eye sees what many of us miss: people, moments, colours and emotions. Anna Mieczyńska, vice-director of the House of Culture and curator of Sonbol's exhibition in Warsaw's Smolna Gallery, has successfully transferred a part of the photographer's wealth to the Polish viewer. No doubt, there is still much more to show.

"It was very important for our gallery to present Sherif's photography and introduce his cultural and artistic values to our visitors," Mieczyńska explains. "We are working on an opportunity for Sherif to return with his ballet photography that would be displayed in the ballet galleries of Warsaw's Grand Theatre. We are already discussing this project with Waldemar Dąbrowski, the theatre's director."


"Egypt. The Crossroad of Faiths. Mulid, Festivals of Faith," an exhibition of photography works by Sherif Sonbol, is on show at Warsaw's Smolna Gallery until end of August.

9 Smolna Street, City Centre, Warsaw, Poland

Sherif Sonbol's website

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