INTERVIEW: PhotoCairo6 curators talk (in)visibility at this year's far-reaching exhibition

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 19 Feb 2017

PhotoCairo6: Shadows of the Imperceptible opened 15 February and runs through 23 March, with an extensive programme of performances, workshops, publications, exhibitions and more

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Artwork by Nadia Mounir at PhotoCairo6, Shadows of the Imperceptible (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Titled Shadows of the Imperceptible, PhotoCairo returns to the city this month for its sixth edition after a four-year hiatus, meditating on the shades of visibility, and playing in the grey area of what is seen, what is veiled, and what is withheld, through a programme of multidisciplinary works.

The exhibition runs from 15 February to 23 March, at Cairo's Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) and Saad Zaghloul Culture Center.

Curators Andrea Thal and Nour El-Safoury spoke to Ahram Online about this year’s theme, the educational aspect that was central to their vision, and the outreach and collaboration with other institutions which resulted in a PhotoCairo that echoes far beyond the spaces that host this year’s programme.

"Invisibility was too binary"

The title, Shadows of the Imperceptible, directs viewers on how to enjoy PhotoCairo6 and engage with the this year's diverse works on a deeper level.

After a process of extensive brainstorming, Thal and El-Safoury said it was the Arabic version (Zelal El-Motawari) of the title that arose first. The curators refined this from the working title ‘Invisibility,’ which indicated the general direction, but didn’t capture the spectrum of the curators’ intent and what the featured artworks were exploring.

“The term invisibility was too binary, and we were more interested in the grey zone between visible and invisible, making images with the awareness that it wasn't just about revealing everything,” Thal says, adding that the conceptual and poetic title also balanced its straightforward counterpart: PhotoCairo.

While they vary in treatment and visuals, the works in the exhibition — including commissions and material from workshops — are conceptually cohesive. Each holds its own while responding to the larger theme.

Thal says the title materialised after looking at some of what emerged from workshops at CIC—the organising body for PhotoCairo — which started in May 2016.

The workshops included Playing with Light, a research group for alternative image-making techniques; An Open Space Between the Text and the Image, a photography and writing workshop with Heba and Ghada Khalifa; Invisibility, a photography workshop with George Awde; and Strategies of Conveyance, a film workshop with Kerstin Schroedinger.

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Raphaël Cuomo / Maria Iorio For the love of the thing. unfolding strip. (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Education, collaboration and context

El-Safoury said the workshops were a unique addition this year, focused on education in addition to the "imperceptible" theme.

"This time there was this focus on knowledge exchange, which continues into the five weeks of the exhibition. That was very important to us, stretching the time period of the festival so it becomes more of an on-going thing," she said.

"Sometimes all that’s required for education or knowledge exchange is to provide an infrastructure or a framework, and to provide space and support. It doesn’t always have to be in the format of an instructor lecturing. The people we worked with for the workshops were very interested in alternative education formats, and none of them used that classic format," Thal said.

The curators shared how one of the workshops — the Playing With Light group — emerged because there were a lot of people discussing alternative photographic chemistry and practices, who were working alone and lacked a space for exchanging ideas.

Some workshops were very intensive, like that given by the Khalifa sisters, who gathered twice a week for three months, in a group very intimately involved with one another’s work.

Others, like the reading group on Listening led by Haytham El-Wardany lasted only a weekend. So, the nature and structure of each workshop differed.

“We didn’t set the workshops up as production for the exhibition of PhotoCairo. In another setting, this kind of setup could just be a production machine, and that’s not at all what we wanted,” Thal says.

Rather, they let the workshops unfold, pressure-free, and afterwards as PhotoCairo approached considered how they could participate within its events, deliberating on if and how the participants wanted to show their work.

From Invisibility the workshop: The Story is Still Asleep. It Dreams, by Eslam Abd El-Salam (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Having a four-year gap between this edition and the last provided the curators with an opportunity to rethink how they wanted to proceed with the festival. According to El-Safoury, this year constituted a conceptual shift in their vision.

“It’s very local in the sense that it’s focused on the surrounding environment in which artists work in this country and the local context,” she says.

“Even the international artists have been involved in the workshops since last year, so they were interested in a sustained engagement with [the local] context by thinking and working here,” Thal says.

El-Safoury and Thal say they were also eager to open new channels of collaboration with other institutions.

“It’s something we really wanted to do, to open up to new and different places, and PhotoCairo really carries the potential for that,” Thal said.

Some of their new allies include the Applied Arts Faculty of Helwan University, which re-opened its dormant darkroom - the largest in Cairo - for use by the Playing with Light Group, and by its own students.

“The visibility topic comes up here too: what is seen where, what kind of visibility every institution or venue has, each with its own history and audience,” Thal said.

The awareness that every venue has its type of audience usually prompts curators to consider which artworks are suitable for which space. They can choose between catering to a specific audience’s taste and presenting artwork that is accessible to them, and teasing and provoking the audience with something different from what they're used to.

Thal said that for her, the most important consideration was "what the work wants and what makes sense for it." She was only wary of redundancy, trying not to showcase artists in venues where they’ve been shown repeatedly.

From Invisibility the workshop: Untitled, by Salma Hassan (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


The projects commissioned for CairoPhoto6 include two photography based; Nadia Mounir’s Was That Really You? and Heba Khalifa’s 4 Atfet Elgetany Street.

Other mediums include Amanda KM’s sound project Filtered Conversations; Dia Hamed, Basem Taha and Youssef Faltas’s artificial intelligence project Artifical Art Critic; Mohamed Abdelkarim’s performance Oh, I Am Sorry! I Didn’t Mean to Scratch Your Face; and Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio’s mixed media project showcasing research on amateur film, titled For the Love of the Thing.

“For the commissions, we were interested in finding artists who were working with concerns and topics related to what we had in mind, either in the way they engaged with material, or in conceptual ways,” the curator said.

Thal said she felt there were many artists, not limited to those selected, who shared similar considerations in their work, exploring what it means to make something visible.

“What is this claim of an image to reveal, or transport truth about a situation? This question of anonymity, and what can you show?” she said.

She gave the example of Amanda KM’s work (displayed at CIC), which is based on conversations, which are never fully revealed to the listener. They become edited into a sound piece that only exposes in part.

“I think this illustrates quite well the idea of working with material without having everything laid open.”

From Invisibility the workshop: The Story is Still Asleep. It Dreams, by Eslam Abd El-Salam (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Thal said she values all the different works and use of mediums equally. The exhibition has no hierarchy between commissioned works and projects from the workshops, (some of which are works in progress), and whose participants range from established artists to experimental amateurs.

The exhibition features artists at very different moments in their practice who come from different contexts, some with a background in photography, others in painting or film.

Likewise, the curators see the transient performances and the pieces that will show for five weeks as different formats with equal importance and weight.

“I wanted to treat all the shows similarly, mixing the commissioned works with the workshops. The performances are only different from the exhibition as far as the unique effect they each create for the audience,” says Thal.

Linking back to the theme of visibility, this diversity in mediums shows the capacity and limitations of each: what a certain style of film, photography, or performance can or cannot reveal.

“Many of the works, when they approach that idea of what becomes visible, you'll find this inter-medial dialogue happening, whether between photography and text, photo and video, or video and text. I think that’s exciting, to approach the idea of what hides and how it hides, different modes of reception, which themselves hide certain things,” said El-Safoury.

Thal observes that its sometimes interesting to think about a certain media through another one.

“There is Hend Samir for instance, whose paintings use photography as a base; the way she brings photos together does something that photography can’t do, and yet photography very much resonates in the work,” Thal says.

From Invisibility the workshop: Between Cairo and Paris, by Nourhan Maayouf (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Beyond the white box

PhotoCairo includes a series of conversations printed in booklets, which will be released throughout the festival and available at CIC’s library. The booklets are one of the means by which PhotoCairo expands beyond its galleries.

The four booklets capture conversations Thal, El-Safroury and Ahmed Refaat had with individuals from different backgrounds, from artists to researchers, engaging and critically reflecting on subjects relevant to PhotoCairo’s themes.

Even in this, El-Safoury noted that editing and reproducing conversations for print can obscure or illuminate, much like photograph or film. “The discourse around art can also be part of this question of what becomes visible, and how,” she said.

PhotoCairo6 also includes the Pan African Space Station, an online radio broadcast that will live stream readings, performances and conversations from CIC's Library, from 3 to 5pm between 17 and 19 February.

This year's PhotoCairo may not be the largest edition — previous years have included more than two exhibition spaces — yet the scope of its outreach is possibly the widest.

“I feel that the number of people who've participated in PhotoCairo since May in the workshops, or who we spoke to for the conversations, or who helped with the programmes — a lot of discussions happened because of this extended period of time. It may not be so much happening in the timeframe of these five weeks, but over time it’s been a lot more.”

Shadows of the Imperceptible exhibition will run at CIC and Saad Zaghloul Culture Center until 23 March. The weekly programme of events and performances will be announced through their social media.

Contemporary Image Collective, 22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat, Downtown Cairo
Saad Zaghloul Culture Center, 2 Saad Zaghloul St, El Mounira, Cairo

From the Playing with Light experimental darkroom research group, at PhotoCairo6, Shadows of the Imperceptible (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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