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Political art - from Egypt’s Tahrir Square in a Delhi gallery

A ringside view of history

delhi Updated: Aug 26, 2017 16:45 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
Laura Tantawy,Tahrir Square,Triveni kala Sangam
Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

It would probably be inaccurate to introduce Laura El-Tantawy as just a photographer. She is a ‘historian’, an insightful chronicler of Egyptians. She began documenting her people in 2005 and continued her work through the tumultuous protests of 2011, which forced president Hosni Mubarak to quit after 30 years in power.

“I was in Italy when the revolution started but I knew I had to be there in Cairo … I took thousands of photographs at the Tahrir Square, the changing mood of the protests and the people behind it. The experience was exhilarating…. I had a ringside view of history,” El-Tantawy told HT, couple of days before the inauguration of her exhibition, In the Shadow of Pyramids, at Triveni Kala Sangam in central Delhi.

In the Shadow of the Pyramids (2015) is also the title of her first book, which includes poetry and photographs of not just the revolution but also the lives of everyday Egyptians, a kind of first-person perspective exploring memory and identity amid the country’s political transformation.

‘In Egypt, women do not often work alone as photographers. It can be dangerous,’ says the photographer. ( PHOTO: LAURA EL-TANTAWY )

Photographing the revolution – or for that matter being a woman photographer in a conservative society -- has not been an easy journey for El-Tantawy.

“It caused a lot of tension in my family,” she said. “In Egypt, women do not often work alone as photographers. It can be dangerous. I get a lot of stares, a lot of comments. There is nowhere to hide…but I stuck on”.

“My family saw the dark side of the revolution. I saw the beautiful side of Egypt,” El-Tantawy added. Even though she took thousands of hauntingly beautiful photographs, she feels she could not capture what was really happening on the ground: “The revolution became a microcosm of what Egypt can be. It held very different promise… But I also saw the movement becoming polluted.”

El-Tantawy, however, feels that the revolution is far from over: “We have hit the pause button. It will restart… this is because people are yet to achieve what they fought for: Dignity”.

‘I can see the parallels in the built heritage of Cairo and Delhi, and the people’s daily struggle to achieve dignity,’ says Laura Tantawy. ( PHOTO: LAURA EL-TANTAWY )

She finds many similarities between India and Egypt and that is one reason for bringing the exhibition --- which is actually a photographic installation --- to India. “I can see the parallels in the built heritage of Cairo and Delhi, and the people’s daily struggle to achieve dignity,” she explained.

El-Tantawy was born in Britain to Egyptian parents and grew up between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US. “I never aimed to be a photographer. I got hooked to the medium after doing a class on photography in college,” she said. “The medium liberated me in many ways … It also helped me re-engage with my country.”

In 2006, she became freelance to focus on personal projects. Her work has been exhibited internationally and appeared in various publications worldwide, including Time Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, Burn Magazine and National Geographic.

In his introductory note in the exhibition catalogue, curator Rahaab Allana of Art Heritage, which is hosting the exhibition in Delhi, writes: “The Shadow of the Pyramids is an intensely personal nine-year journey of entrenched reportage surrounding the events of the ‘January 25 Revolution’ at Tahrir Square in Cairo. The show has been conceptualised as an immersive experience, the exhibition presents her unique compendium of protest imagery at a time of expanding social media”.

Conceptualised as an audio-visual installation, the “immersive experience” will include large video screens, framed photographs and audio tracks, touching upon the themes of neoliberalism, censorship and the pursuit of civil rights.

“There is a reason why we decided to do the exhibition in the 70th year of India’s Independence and in August… we hope El-Tantawy works will stir our collective conscience around a critical question: Have we achieved the kind of freedom we fought for?” Amal Allana, director, Art Heritage said. “The world seems to always focus a lot on how the West fought for freedom but forget what the other parts did. This exhibition captures that untold story”. The exhibition is timely because questions of social and political freedom are being strongly debated almost on a daily basis these days in India.

There are strong political overtones in her photos but interestingly El-Tantawy said she does not think that her work as “political”.

“I photograph people, their lives and emotions. I talk to my subjects because I really love to engage with people,” she explained. “…. But I want to leave it to the viewer to engage with my images, whichever way she wants”.


What: ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids’

When: Till September 20

Where: Triveni Kala Sangam, Tansen Marg, Todarmal Road Area

Nearest metro station: Mandi House

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 20:26 IST