Egyptian artist swims against the current, but tentatively
Egyptian photographer Nourhan Maayouf’s solo exhibition at Absa gallery in Johannesburg traces her journey and comments on contemporary Egyptian society.
Her focus on a young woman’s struggle for independence in a conservative society provides a good idea of the country’s rich cultural architecture.
In Egypt there is constant tension between the yearning for independence, particularly by the youth in a country struggling to preserve its rich heritage, which is increasingly being challenged by a wave of universal values fast encroaching on its cultural landscape.
Using the medium of digital photography and video installation, Maayouf uses her body as the subject in this exhibition, which she conceptualised and produced while in Paris on a six-month residency.
The residency is part of the prize in the influential Absa L’Atelier competition for young visual artists from SA and other African countries where the bank has a footprint.
Maayouf’s exhibition is titled The Sea is Closed: Shallow Water. Her three-year-old nephew, who accompanied her and her mother to a beach in Cairo in 2017, asked if he could swim in the sea. Her mother replied that the sea was closed, and he couldn’t.
"The truth, though, was that the child could not swim. The metaphor of this child, in many ways, represents the reality of many in Egypt, especially women who cannot swim as society does not encourage them to learn. This is because the women will have to wear bikinis, a taboo in the mainly Muslim country," she says.
"I only learned how to swim after winning the L’Atelier Award. That, in many ways, represents my independence and freedom as a young woman from societal expectations and restrictions," Maayouf says.
"My exhibition is focused on two main topics with four subthemes: home and relationships. It imagines and explores what is going on in contemporary Egyptian society, behind closed doors in apartments, and my relationship with my parents.
"In essence, my photography explores issues that are personal and private.
"I am not interested in, for example, the big picture issues like climate change and how it is affecting the world, but rather in the personal and private."
Her other themes are loneliness, attachment and anxiety. A first time traveller outside Egypt — coming to SA in 2016 to attend the Absa award ceremony and being in Paris for the residency in 2017 — Maayouf describes her experience as an eye opener.
"I come from a middle-class family where a woman is not supposed to leave home and live on her own until she gets married and leaves to live with her husband," Maayouf says.
"The opportunity to spend six months in Europe provided me with challenges and opportunities. I explored my art practice and the world beyond Cairo and the Africa for the first time.
"I found myself excited to be there, practising my art and attending many exhibitions that I could only ever dream of, as there is something happening every day in Paris.
"On the other hand, I was anxious all the time as I had to learn how to budget for my daily expenses without the assistance of my parents."
She likens her anxiety to swimming in shallow waters and references that in the title of the exhibition. It is also illustrated in a photograph of her suitcase, which was unpacked many months after she checked into her Paris apartment.
"I mainly left the suitcase unpacked as I felt that I did not belong there. I realised that, as much as I felt a sense of freedom and independence, I was actually lonely and attached to my parents," she says.
The loneliness is represented in a series of photographs that show her engaging in mundane everyday things such as cleaning her apartment and reading. Some images in this series show empty spaces, such as the bathroom in her Paris apartment.
Another series shows a mouse anxiously moving around a room, meticulously sniffing things such as pots and a stove.
"Mice are known to be anxious, preferring to explore domestic environments, such as kitchens when it’s dark and everyone is asleep," Maayouf says. "There are plenty of mice in Paris. On many occasions I felt like a mouse, fearing that I would be mugged in the streets as I felt vulnerable and shy.
" I would only go out at night, under the cover and the anonymity of darkness."
The video installation in the exhibition shows her alone in open spaces, seemingly in serious contemplation. But she insists that winning the award has been good for her, as it opened many doors.
"I have left my corporate job in marketing to practice art full time for the first time in my life.
"I am … studying for a master’s degree, specialising in photography and that, hopefully, will open doors for me to work as a lecturer at university," Maayouf says. "I am currently a photography tutor at Germany University in Cairo.
"And also I can now swim, although only in shallow water."
The Sea is Closed: Shallow Water runs until June 15 at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg.