Layer of Green: 11 photographers explore the concept of environment

Soha Elsirgany, Saturday 22 Mar 2014

Cairo's Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) displays the works of young Egyptian photographers addressing the environment in an exhibition titled 'Layer of Green'

Layer of Green
Maryam Ahmed's work in Layer of Green exhibition at the Contemporary Image Collective, CIC (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Layer of Green, a photography exhibition that opened at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) on 16 March and runs until 16 April, is the result of a collaborative workshop between the Goethe Institute and the CIC Photo School.

The workshop was moderated by two renowned photographers, Egyptian Rana El-Nemr and German Jens Liebchen, who later on co-curated the exhibition with the same theme.

During the three-day process-oriented workshop, which was held in November, participants explored, researched and exchanged perspectives on Egypt’s environment, under the concept of "Layer of Green." The photographic projects were nurtured though a three-month mentorship with El-Nemr and Liebchen.

Initiated by Goethe as part of its regional project addressing the issue of environmental change, El-Nemr suggested expanding the topic to encompass the adaptable notion of "green" in social, political, economic and cultural contexts.

Defining the concept and refining it, expanding some ideas and zooming in on others, the exhibition becomes a multifaceted survey of Egypt's environment through the sensibilities of 11 photographers.

The diversity of the photographers’ approaches in the exhibition is in harmony with their mixed backgrounds — some more academic, others more artistic — as they vary in levels of proficiency. This was a diversity the curators were interested in keeping, to enrich the dialogue throughout the workshop experience.

While leading the whole experience, the curators themselves pursue very different approaches. Similarities surface in the ways El-Nemr's and Liebchen's personal works touch upon analogue themes, sharing a social documentary style which is subjective in nature.  

Liebchen’s project "Playing Fields" addresses the energy issue with a play on sunlight and shade, while El-Nemr has been pondering the environmental issue since her latest project "Giza Threads," a photography exhibition she held back in 2012.

The workshop, however, was devised with much improvisation to make the best of what each of the curators can offer to the participants. With German Liebchen more strategy-oriented, and Egyptian El-Nemr more intuitive, she reflects that their diversity was motivating and useful for both the curators and participants.

"The dynamics of opposites gave rise to interesting dialogue and exchanges, sparking arguments of validating art from different perspectives," El-Nemr told Ahram Online.

"As we shared our own ideas, they (El-Nemr and Liebchen) would show us a relevant artists' works. It is refreshing to open up my mind and absorb ideas different from mine,” says Nadia Mounir, one of the workshop and exhibition participants and a regular at CIC’s Photo School.

The exhibition "Layer of Green" explores a variety of aspects that the theme may represent and looks into different thematic and technical depths of the concept. Exhibiting very individual approaches to the subject, the participating photographers touched upon agriculture, traffic, recreation, consumerism, and life and death, hence covering the walls of CIC with various shades of green.

Photographer Mai El-Shazly chose to visit a greenhouse for her work titled "Inside and Outside." Her three large pieces are from inside the greenhouse looking out, with a veiling sheath of grey fabric separating the realms.

"I went to photograph the inside space, only to discover that the outside view was more interesting," El-Shazly recounts to Ahram Online.

The documentary approach is visible in the work of Manar Moursi, from her series on small amusement parks, particularly those found at Cairo’s metro stations.

Oddly placed, under bridges or in-between buildings, Moursi presents a view of sometimes neglected public spaces in Cairo.

"They do exist, but these play areas are so overshadowed by the city, they seem fragile and threatened," explains Moursi.

Peeking out from their awkward placement, the parks offer a flash of colour amidst their surrounding greyness of cement and exhaust fumes. Moursi’s work offers both a quiet celebration of these areas, while mourning their disappearance.

In the spirit of disappearance is yet another series, Ahmed Safyeldin’s photo essay, in which he recounts a tale of Siwa’s palm trees and its date harvest.

"Their life (the palm trees) is almost invisible to us and disappearing slowly," comments Safyeldin. Safyeldin, an engineer-turned-photo enthusiast, is interested in the underlying stories he encountered in Siwa surrounding the harvest, making his photos a personal means of archiving those lives.

A more subtle layer of green exists in the work of Nadia Mounir. In her quiet and careful frames, Mounir tackles consumerism, gluttony and overconsumption.

Initially, she had planned a direct approach similar to that of British photographer Martin Parr, whose satirical upfront style throws a critical look at modern life, wealth and "The Cost of Living" — the title of one of his books.

Mounir, however, chose to slide back to her preferred indirect visuals, while maintaining the critical undertone, "I am addressing the effect rather than the symbols of consumerism, taking shots that resonate with me as I walk."

An animal’s carcass, a bush of plastic bags blooming like false roses, a halted construction site, Mounir's various subjects and places are linked by a sense of desolation, traces of greed and carelessness marking the landscape.

Similar in topic, but wholly different in execution, is the work of Maryam Ahmed, who chose a bolder visual language.

Ahmed’s series juxtaposes candid photos of green products with scenes of lush green areas, displayed side by side in a mosaic effect. Maryam’s work stands out as visually attractive, before one appreciates the visual play between the natural green versus the artificial.

Another interesting project is that of Wafaa Samir, the only artist to employ multimedia. Her photo series, titled "Green Areas in Cairo," ironically depicts several metal gates colored green, while the plasma screen on the opposite wall loops a shot of lawn, with occasional sunlight dancing over the grass.

The exhibition is a work in progress, as the workshop meant to probe aspects of the environment, engaging the photographers and their audience in reflections on their surroundings, as opposed to advocating or provoking action.

As more focus was given during the workshop to the ideas rather than technical mastery of photography, it may have hindered the presentation of the works displayed. On the other hand, "Layer of Green" declares itself an uninhibited exploration, amateur and professional, with both employing the medium as an expressive tool.

This unpretentious quality was not lost on attendees at the opening night, with Salma Omar, a wedding photographer, finding the experimental works intriguing to ponder.

"Some of the projects made me see things in a new light. Seeing such different works and perspectives placed side by side, there is a freshness I can appreciate," commented Omar.

The exhibition runs until 16 April
Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), 22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, 4th Floor, Downtown, Cairo

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