The Whole World is a Circus

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 26 May 2011

Acrobats, clowns, jugglers, and trained animals are the subjects of John Perkins’ photography exhibition but instead of the excitement and thrills of the big top, he reveals the sad truth behind the scenes at the circus


A picture is worth a thousand words. Over thirty photographs take us on a journey of the truth, where even the laughter and joy of the audience fails to conceal the deplorable conditions today of one of the most attractive art forms.

Mr President’s Circus exhibition is the result of four years of documentation, created by John Perkins, a British photographer currently living and working in Egypt, taking us behind the scenes of one of the most beloved art forms.

In black and white photography, displayed on the 1st floor of the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art, Perkins’ lens goes behind the scenes at the circus, contrasting sadly with the magic and lights on the stage.

“It all started with my particular interest in people who do amazing things,” Perkins explains to Ahram Online the reasons behind his choice. “I enjoy watching all physical and cultural activities and relate them to the state of the country.”

Perkins took his camera and entered the circus in 2007. Along the way he has made lots of friends and was supported by many people working under the big top.

However the whole experience was not without problems.

“Some people working at the circus didn’t like me to expose the negative side of their reality. It is the fear of an organisation operating under a governmental body.”

In spite of the obstacles, the photographer managed to penetrate the most hidden truths of the circus.

Perkins enjoys working in black and white photography and this technique was the most appropriate in the circumstances. “White light at the circus is really bad and is quite nasty for colour photography. For technical reasons black and white is the best choice,” he explained to Ahram Online.

In his photographs Perkins does not search for the laughter, the colours and the captivating energy and illumination known to the circus audience.

Instead he captures the reality behind the collasping state of the Egyptian circus and his camera lens is not afraid to show this other side of the coin.

It was in the1960s that the National Circus, located in Agouza on the west bank of the Nile, was opened and the idea was that: “the state would support the venerable circus that the Helw family had established,” explains Galal Amin in his book, Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians? “The opening of the National Circus was part of a successful attempt to spark a general cultural renaissance in Egypt”.

In the exhibition Perkins walks us through the history of the circus, as far back as the dawn of the twentieth century with the El Helw and Kouta families.

We find a photograph of a poster announcing a performance by Ali El Helw and his two sons in the 1930s before the family split, giving root to many internal conflicts between the growing branches of the family, which was only reinforced by Mahasen El Helw taking a husband from the Kouta family.

Under one photograph the caption reads; Generation after generation, family members inherited the skills, the craft and the animals, as well as the rivalry. Another photograph is of an advertisement from the 1920’s of Hamada Kouta and the young Medhat Kouta, the lion-tamers.

It was at the beginning of the 1970s that the deterioration began, reflecting the social and economic changes taking place in the country. The financial obstacles, the neglect of the Ministry of Culture, and the cutting of funds for international tours by the Mubarak regime, contributed to the decline of the circus.

“Today the neglect and complete lack of care are revealed everywhere, from the bleachers for the audience to the tattered circus tent, not to mention the embarrassing low salaries,” writes Amin.

Perkins’ photography is a straightforward testimony of the aftermath of decades of problems. It is the basic representation of the reality of the dying power of the circus that strikes the viewer.

This status quo has seriously affected the development of the circus and as Perkins notes, “Today not all of the performers care about their show. Whilst many of them try to include new numbers and search the internet for updates, others are happy with the same act they have given for ten years.”

Black and white photographs form a journey through the history of the Egyptian circus and it’s status in today’s entertainment arena. But the documentation is not only limited to facts. It is a touching account of an artistic institution, the lives of it’s people and even of it’s animals.

Captions under many pictures are prepared by Mona Abouissa, a documentary journalist who joined Perkins in the project. “Mona developed a good link with the circus people, they liked to talk to her and tell her their stories,” he observed.

The sad, reflective faces in Perkins' photography carry messages of lingering hope. Even a clown or a cyclist seems to have their mind on the destiny of the circus.

It is their pure passion for the craft that chains many of those young people to the circus, with insufficient reward for their dedication. Perkins captures them at work, at rest or simply socialising.

“The whole world is a circus and we are a small circus inside it,” Perkins quotes Abu Leila, one of the circus’ managers. The irony and the sad truth of Abu Leila’s words remains one of the strongest messages from Perkins’ exhibition.

The photographs shed an important light on yet another sector of the arts which needs our attention and as such the exhibition is not only very profound on an artistic level, but also timely.

Let us only hope that in the face of all the changes taking place in Egypt, the National Circus will find a way to return to it’s original glory.


Perkins conducts a workshop for 15 young photographers, guiding them through the methods of communicating a story through pictures. The results of this workshop will be displayed on 20 June.

On Saturday, 28 May a short workshop about the circus will be held for the youngest audience. “It is very important to introduce children to the fun of a circus. This way we hope to raise interest for this art form,” concluded Perkins.

Perkins’ exhibition will be also shown in the circus tent. He plans to publish a book, which will include many photographs he has taken of the circus over four years. It will also include insights from the most recent developments, following the 25 January revolution.

The exhibition opened on Sunday 22 May and was followed by a short show by the circus performers.

The exhibition will continue until 15 June at the Townhouse Gallery.

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