Review #6: The Social Lives of a Legendary Photographer’s Exhibition

Halim Ramses

“The Legend: Farouk Ibrahim” is a photography exhibition, part of the events of “Cairo Photo Week”, organized by Photopia, curated by Nadia Mounier and unboxed by Karim Farouk Ibrahim. The exhibition ran at Access Gallery in Downtown Cairo from February 9 to 18, 2023, and was then extended to February 28, due to the audience’s turnout which—according to Photopia—reached 22,000 visitors.

Farouk Ibrahim (1929-2011) was an Egyptian photographer who lived through many presidents and celebrities that appear in his work in photojournalism.

The exhibition was divided into two halls. The first follows Farouk Ibrahim's coverage of Egypt's political and social events and his encounter with different political leaders and symbols. The curator's effort became evident as she tried to create room for these photographs within a factual timeline of Egypt's modern history between 1952-2011. As for the second hall, it had a more casual approach and displayed photographs of notable figures in art and literature.

“The Legend: Farouk Ibrahim” was able to break out of the circle of avid exhibition-goers, and attract a larger audience by reaching spaces on the Internet that exceeded the usual reach of photography exhibitions. My first interaction with the show was through shared photos on the internet of the displayed photographs, and through them I formed a first impression. It wasn’t until I visited the exhibition that I found myself standing in front of a different photograph than the one I interacted with online, with a completely different meaning and context.

Throughout this review, I would like to differentiate between a Farouk Ibrahim photograph that is printed in a magazine or journal, a framed photograph in the exhibition, a photo of the framed photograph shared on social media, and finally a photo of a person with the framed photograph. Each photo(graph) has a life, meaning, and context different from the other.

View of the exhibition. Photos [left and right]: Naira Omar

With every repost of a photo taken from the exhibition, the photograph was taken out of context, and it quickly turned into posts that are completely independent from the exhibition. The absence of the original context of the photograph and the difficulty of tracing it back to the exhibition enabled the addition of new meanings to it. By this act of reposting, the photographs were taken out of the context of the exhibition. This made me wonder, was the exhibition’s final form a step towards depriving Farouk Ibrahim's photographs from their original context?

The forms of interaction with the exhibition differed. Some liked to “acquire” the photograph by re-photographing it, by not showing the frame nor the walls of the exhibition hall in the photo, whilst others were delighted to be photographed with the photograph. The exhibition was able to stir up feelings that ranged from memes on social media, to intense feelings of anger that reached the point of stomping on the floor. Here, I am not questioning the reasons that compelled an audience beyond regular exhibition-goers to view the exhibition, although it is an important point to address. Rather, I am trying to think of forms and modes of audience interaction, and how the audience revisited those ‘icons’ through photographs? I wonder, would it be harsh to describe this sort of engagement and celebration as one being based on the interaction with a neoliberal memory?

Photo: Alaa Tamer
Photo: Maha Elgazzar
Photo: Abdelrahman Abo Leila

Neoliberal memory is based on depriving or “liberating” memory from its original context to facilitate assigning new meanings, and dealing with the past as a shining mirage of a golden, mythical, and ideal time. There is a critique of the idea of neoliberal thought reaching beyond the direct economy, how it became an ideology for our daily practices, and its ability to commodify concepts, people, and our relationship to time and memory.

We read photos from our position in the current time, and despite the ability of the photo in the magazine to remind us of its period, we both exist in the same timeframe and logic. The photograph in the exhibition, however, is not the same as the photo in the magazine. On the contrary, it is a photo that was printed and generated in a new context and meaning specific to the exhibition. I thought about the forms of engagement with the photographs in the exhibition, and whether they are based on meanings that are nostalgic for a “golden time.” I also thought about some points were absent in the exhibition’s narrative about the photo produced by the photojournalist and its relationship to the art world; How did Farouk Ibrahim himself define his journalistic work? How did the reader receive photojournalism in Egypt, when Farouk Ibrahim practiced photojournalism? Is the meaning behind a photo in a magazine different from the one of a photography exhibition? How did the reader interact with the photo in the magazine? Regarding the use of the term “unboxing the archive” in the text of the exhibition, is it permissible to apply it on photos already in print magazines? And regarding the description of the photographs as “legendary”, what makes a photograph legendary?

Please note the reflection of the exhibition space in the photo. Photo: Mohamed Hassan
Screenshot from Facebook.

I invite the readers to think about the forms of audience interaction and the relationship to the institution's narrative of the exhibition, which was formed whether by actively doing or not doing anything. The review is not attempting to criticize a work done by an individual, but rather to comment on the institution and the larger context from which the exhibition emerged. It also questions the exhibition’s ability to escape reactions, comments and feelings that differ in their type and intensity, and to comment on the institution’s celebration of a certain type of interaction amidst the absence of spaces where such exchanges happen.

Screenshots from the internet, showing audience interaction with the exhibition.

The text of the exhibition encourages us, in a very enthusiastic manner, to study “Farouk Ibrahim’s School of Photography.” I have a pessimistic expectation, that the exhibition marks the beginning of the commodification of Farouk Ibrahim's archive amid the current form of knowledge production and arts education in Egypt. However, with a similar enthusiastic tone, I encourage tracing the social lives of Farouk Ibrahim's archive because of my belief in its ability to convey the shape of the current scene, and the artistic discourses in Egypt, perhaps more so than the time and people that Farouk Ibrahim's pictures bear.

If interested in the topic discussed, below is a recommended reading list:

︎ Ryzova, Lucie. “Unstable Icons, Contested Histories: Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt.” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 8.1 (2015): 37–68.
︎ Ryzova, Lucie. “Nostalgia for the Modern: Archive Fever in Egypt in the Age of Post-Photography.” Photo Archives and the Idea of Nation (2014): 301–318.
︎ Lee, Namhee. “Memory Construction and the Politics of Time in Neoliberal South Korea.” Duke University Press. (2022).
︎ Golia, Maria. Photography and Egypt. Reaktion. (2010).

Halim Ramses is a visual artist & cultural practitioner based in Cairo, Egypt. Halim’s work explores spatial and object memory, incorporating different mediums as photography, video, workshops and story-telling performance. He engages with different archival practices, trying to explore loss, silences, gaps and remembrance through series of embodiment and fictive interventions. He proposes ways of being and looking towards inherited narratives and official history.

As part of his artistic practice, he facilitates the Re-imagining Egyptology Program which is a space for artists from diverse disciplines to come together and collaboratively work, discuss, share resources and create projects that navigate through the gaps and the silences in archives. It is an opportunity to create personal, feminist, and queer narratives that challenge the official, colonial and chronological understandings of history.

 🇵🇸 We Will Not Stand by in Silence: ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories ✦ 🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.
🇵🇸We Will Not Stand by in Silence:  ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction  ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.