Featuring 42 square monochromatic prints of the White Desert and the Baharia Oasis, Abdel-Hakeem Mostafa’s exhibition Zad Al- Khayal (or “Food for fancy”) opened at Gallery Misr in Zamalek on 15 January. Born in Rafah in 1963, Mostafa is a science teacher who started his photographic career in 1994. He gave his first solo exhibition, Nights of Wandering, at Cairo Atelier in 2007. Four others followed, the latest being Pink Palace at the Saad Zaghloul Cultural Centre in 2016.
Coming in two sizes – 33x33 cm and 45x45 cm – these pictures depict only rocks, but ones that take on all kinds of shapes: bird, human and animal. Mostafa used film, and his medium is appropriate to the meditative quietude implied by the scenes. Millions of years ago the White Desert was a seabed, and the subtle mark of marine life lives on in rock and sand.
“The white desert is located between the Bahariya and the Farafra Oases. The collection on show is the result of seven trips to the location that took place from 2012 to 2019. On my first excursion, I was mentally provoked by the variety of formats. On the last couple of visits, I was actually discovering myself, my own identity.”
One of the main influences that encouraged Mostafa to take his photography further was the landmark film The Mummy by Shadi Abdel-Salam, about the discovery in Luxor of a hitherto hidden cache of mummies. “The film, set in a historical atmosphere featuring the ruins of ancient Egyptian civilisation, has been a great inspiration since I saw it at the age of 15.” Another great source of inspiration was the music of Armenian-Egyptian musician George Kazazian, which delves into Egyptian identity and popular heritage.
At different points in the gallery, Mostafa has also included quotes from Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.“Reading this historical novel, which was written in 1985 and revolves around the period of Akhenaten, his personality and the call for the new monotheistic religion, had a huge impact on the development of my current project.”
Mostafa’s minimalist approach, focusing on the beauty of a single rock, gives each shot an emotional and philosophical dimension that takes the viewer into the depth of this unique landscape. In some pictures, the photographer’s vigilant eye combines frames to create a dialogue between two or more rocks. And yet these images go far beyond landscape photography. Each is a rock portrait: a human head with a sad smile on its face or an odalisque in the sand. The photographer controls light and shadow with breathtaking expertise. “I opted for black and white because the colours in the desert are very limited, and the repetition of blue, yellow and white would have been monotonous. Gray-scale has a more spiritual effect.”
The exhibition also features images from Al- Bawit, the city centre of the Baharia Oasis, where trees with leafless branches and peeling bark have a more melancholy effect. “One of the main observations I had during my excursions is this symmetry of shapes of stones and plants in the desert. Due to my recurrent visits to the desert, the repetition of scenes started to fuel my imagination. I started to see real figures in them: a portrait of the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, statues of Nefertiti and Isis, and Al-Khamseen, the famous sculpture by Mahmoud Mokhtar, which features an Egyptian country woman with a loose gown, among others...”
Mostafa’s next project will feature a dialogue between humans and houses in different parts of Upper Egypt, an attempt to find similarities between the features of local residents and their homes in Maraziq, a small village near Aswan. The new project promotes another region in Egypt, where the photographer was raised, yet another attempt to dig up identity.
“The journey itself granted me some good opportunities to hone my skills, the most significant of which was allowing myself to be lost in uninhibited land, which is an ideal opportunity for solitude and meditation on the concept of time as an abstract element, a component of nature.”
The exhibition runs through 2 February.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly