Barry Iverson’s solo at the new Tintera Gallery subverts collective identity and memory

Soha Elsirgany , Monday 29 Jul 2019

Barry Iverson’s photographs are in perfect line with the vision of Tintera, a photography consultancy with a gallery space


New photography space Tintera held an exhibition for American Cairo-based photographer Barry Iverson titled The Tour, which ran till 22 July.

The show, which opened mid-June, also inaugurated the gallery, which emerged from Heba Farid's and Zein Khalifa’s three-year photography consultancy.

The Consultants’ gallery

“There’s a lot of talk and discourse, but when you see the work in person, things start to make more sense. We felt it was worth having a physical space for all the photographic work happening in Egypt - one that only focuses on fine art photography,” Farid said.

Farid is also a co-founder of the Contemporary Image Collective, which she considers as the incubator or ‘the kitchen’ for experimental work and education. Tintera is for the next level, and works with professionals and established photographers.

Khalifa and Farid both have backgrounds that allow them to give specialized support in photography, which sets them apart from other galleries in Cairo.

“[In Egypt] we rarely have high caliber photo exhibitions and original works contextualized properly. We’re trying to build that interest,” says Farid.

Their mission is highlighted with their comprehensive showcase of Iverson as the inaugural solo; presenting historic and contemporary fine art photography, while educating viewers and contextualizing the medium and its historical frameworks.

Iverson’s practice involves photographic techniques from the past, and mirrors itself in his themes as he explores issues of memory and historical context.

“He’s lived in Egypt for over 40 years. He already came with a strong reference of what photography is and what you can do with it. His own work is also important in the timeline of photographic practice, so on many levels his work was very relevant,” Farid said while walking me through the exhibition.


A subtle challenge

Iverson received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1985 to research the history of photography in Egypt, which informed his own personal practice and added weight to his images of Egypt and the region.

His book ‘Comparative Views of Egypt, Cairo: One Hundred years Later’ is almost a prelude to the collection we find at Tintera.

In The Tour, what at first may seem like a documentary collection of old black and white images around Egypt, soon becomes a subversion of time, space, and collective identity when we realize we fell for the artist’s trick.

On each of the 35 black and white archival pigment prints there are two dates; a recent onefrom around the 2000s, and a much older one from the 1800s or 1900s.

The recent dates point to Iverson’s own photos of places that are timeless, fluidly fitting into past and present, as malleable as a stage waiting for a performance to give it context. He then skillfully, and seamlessly edits onto them figures from archival photos from a much older era.

We fall for the trick but are caught in the safety net of an exhibition that seeks to inform us, right after it challenges us [as Egyptians] and our self-perception.

“He’s challenging us in our understanding of what we think of as nostalgia, what we understand of our own history, and who we are,” Farid notes.

Underneath the flawlessly edited photos is a current of disruptive questions that is especially relevant for a viewer identifying as Egyptian:

Who is the Egyptian? Considering that Egypt absorbed so many different nationalities in the past 200 years; Italians, French, Germans, British. Where do all the different people who’ve passed through it fit in? What is the Egyptian identity? The Islamic, the pharaonic, the post-modern?

Egypt has been extensively photographed by foreigners, and had its fair share of the orientalist gaze. Iverson himself, despite his years and experience could still be considered a foreigner. Do Egyptians identify with these representations of themselves by ‘the other.’ How much have they internalized these images?

“After he tells us we have to rethink these things, there is another layer where you realize the scenes are actually fabrications. It’s like we’re manufacturing our own history through illusion,” adds Farid.


Quiet revolutions

Looking through the exhibition, it becomes harder and harder to tell what is real and what isn’t, what counts as documentary and what doesn’t.

An image of two women in Bedouin-wear is one of those photos where the boundaries are blurred. It is placed on a table as part of the archive segment of the exhibition, showcasing small images from the founders’ personal collection and other sources.

We never doubt it’s an archive photo, but what is less obvious is the conditions of how it was shot, as Farid explains.

“They’re not real Bedouin, but more like actors told to dress as such. It’s part of our archive, but we took it as evidence, even though it’s a fabricated and orientalist image.”

On the other hand, and also challenging our understanding of archive, is a 1920s image of two women posing as a married couple, one in a dress the other in a suit with her hair tied up beneath a tarboush.

It sheds light on how, at the time, photography was revolutionary and had become very fluid and accessible, making the idea of self-representation interesting.

“They play-acted and cross-dressed, and collected the images privately like diaries,” Farid explains. “This is why it was important for us to have this display, for us to show these references and to remind people that this is documentary: people in control of their own agency and making their own choices, working with the photographer.”

There’s another powerful photo of Mounira El-Mahdeya - pioneering singer of the gramophone era, and starlet of musical theatre - standing in a suit, full make-up, and a tarboush. This image of her was very likely printed in a magazine, showing herself as she wanted to be seen.


Hearts and histories

In the heart of the display, there rests a large photo album in a Plexiglas case. As an artist responding to photo heritage, Iverson emulates another mode of how photography circulated; recalling how the first photographers made albums of their work for sale.

The album is open to reveal a single photo, and the rest of the pages contain 17 more images not on display. It’s like a valuable secret - or rather a teaser inciting us to go on our own further journeys through our photographic history.

The innermost room of the gallery has a collection of fresh new works. In this collection, Iverson commissioned two painters to hand color the photographs, each with their distinct style.

“It was an experiment from both sides,” Farid shares.“Iverson was thinking: Let’s allow it to evolve on its own, have its own life and character. It’s a different approach to his other pieces, where everything is controlled and precise.”

Also in this room on a side wall is a collection of photos from the founders’ personal archive. It serves as a permanent reminder of Tintera’s direction.

“Every show we have will always have some kind of connection with our heritage.”


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