After It will always come back to you (2021), a first solo museum exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Virginia, USA, Cairo-based photographer and visual artist, Ibrahim Ahmed inaugurates his first solo show in Egypt, I never revealed myself to them (2021), at Tintera — a photographic gallery in the central neighborhood of Zamalek1. The artist is already back at work on his next project, To gaze at a moving target, continuing his exploration of the notion of masculinity that has become paramount to his work.
“I never revealed myself to them” presents a series of photomontages created over the span of five years. It invites us, on a rare occasion, to cast our gaze on the male body, a fluid space of turmoil and contestation. “Throughout the 20th century, and beginning with the anti-colonial struggle, writes Lina Atallah, Egyptian masculinity was closely tied with the nation”.2 Artist Ibrahim Ahmed struggles to transition into manhood, to the extent of becoming obsessed, as any good artist, with the underlying nationalist foundations that shape his gendered identity. If he was spoon-fed the ways of his gender by his father, he believes, it is high time to unlearn them. By developing a practice around the manipulation of photographic archives from the 20th century, he captures his viewers’ attention with a sense of urgency, pointing to the links between a learned embodiment of manhood and its ties to a secure sense of identity.
A heritage so heavy to bear
Upon entering the exhibition space, we are greeted by a portrait of a young man, Ibrahim’s father, whose face is fragmented against a layered background of gray skies. The soft focus of overlaying images in shades of sepia suggests that the original pictures emerge from a different time. The father’s face is reassembled to show four different angles, and instead of two, he gazes directly at us with the poignancy of three eyes. The photomontages we follow into the space, expose the family’s memories in fragments, placing us with the artist in a liminal state between the intimate experience of sifting through family memories, and the politico-historical question of estrangement. “To embrace patriarchy, writes Bell Hooks, [one] must actively surrender to the longing to love.”3 Indeed, Ahmed’s manipulation of images seems to express a longing for something bigger than him as an antidote to the weight of his lived experience. In some of the black and white images, he is seen attempting to carry a heavy rock, which in turn emphasizes his naturally buffeted figure. The large rock, an object too heavy to move by oneself, is associated with the struggle of so-called unskilled workers, usually a male-dominated field of work that one does not choose to enter but is forced to, by circumstances. While Ahmed merely performs the act of carrying the rock, the unconscious body is unaware of the divide between the imagined and the real, and one can see the tension in his body.
In other black and white images, Ahmed learns to pose like a ‘real man,’ by mimicking his father and other men who appear in the archival photos. He is not completely nude, which would have told a different story, but exposes most of his body. Unlike his father who is often looking straight at us, Ahmed is never seen gazing back at the camera, but rather looks downwards, to a part of his body or into the distance. Is this a sign of humility? Submission? Shame? Or a way of guiding us to place our focus elsewhere in the image?
Deconstructing the past to invent the present
One of the main gaps in literature in the study of masculinity is the focus on the embodiment, which is often reserved for the female body.4 Ahmed’s artwork paves the way for a more profound exploration of this subject, by tracing a trajectory of sixty years, using the archive as a backdrop for an exploration of figuration. The fragmentation of figures within the images becomes a ritual of erasure and decomposition. In contrast, a deliberate enlargement of the scale of these photomontages creates a tension between his denouncing of an inherited patriarchal infrastructure and a celebration of the idolized figures and their associated nostalgia. To hold the tension between two opposite things is a delicate act of balancing that the artist masters to make sense of his idiosyncratic identity. Ahmed’s work is fueled with emotion, which he exposes to the viewer through the labor-extensive layering of hundreds of cut-out images to reveal an essence hidden behind the architecture of bodies.
Having lived in between the US, the Persian Gulf and Egypt, it was the urgency of having to make sense of the divergent cultures that shaped him, that led him to question his place as a man with an inevitable identity parred with toxicity. How is one indoctrinated into becoming a man? And how does one make sense of and move beyond male privilege?
In 2019, Ahmed gathered a few hundred photographs from his father’s archive and began a thorough process of mining them in search for identification of masculine figures in various geographical contexts. His praxis touched upon ideas of public space as mostly male-dominated infrastructures. If women have been ostracized from the public gaze throughout the decades, this reveals an unspoken understanding that a woman’s place is not outside but in the safety of domestic spaces. While this statement risks reducing the problem to a caricature of the Egyptian man whose only two options are to protect or violate women5, it holds a certain truth in the lived experience of many Egyptians.
When Ahmed walks around the neighborhood of Ard el Lewa in Giza, where he currently lives and works, he feels a sense of familiarity within the informal environment. He is aware of the privileges that his male identity grants him, but being an artist usually sparks curiosity as to how he plans to make a living, and to support a woman and a family of his own. He finds in the environment social codes that recall his parents’ ways of being. This symbolic language is all too charged because both his parents belong to a generation of Egyptians who have lived within informal infrastructures.
Moving to Cairo
Like millions of Egyptians in the mid-fifties of the last century, Ahmed’s father left the densely populated rural town where he grew up in Menoufiah on the Nile delta, migrating towards the urban center of Cairo, where opportunities were arising. Growing up as a farmer in Lower Egypt meant an education that was rooted in tradition more so than in universal values. Although Nasser’s regime had brought about a massive change in public schooling systems in rural Egypt (not without its criticism), higher education and the better work opportunities were centered in the big cities.
The influx of Egyptians into the urban centers of Cairo, Alexandria, and the likes, required a quick and practical solution to the problem of housing. With the neglect of these millions of local migrants from the government, the new Cairenes took matters into their own hands and built their own houses on squatted land. Cairo was made up of hundreds of hectares of agricultural lands along the Nile, and only a few formal neighborhoods were planned for an affluent minority. The rest of the surrounding area around Greater Cairo is desert land, towards which the city has been slowly expanding. Migrants into Cairo, in need of affordable housing within the city, overtook the agricultural lands, when no other solution was made available. Today, most of Cairo’s population lives within areas considered informal, known to be quite busy, and have developed a hybrid cultural identity in between rural and urban, but not quite abiding by the rules of either. With the rise of informal building blocks all around Cairo, an entire economy and infrastructure was put in place serving the needs of the population. The problems of electricity and clean water continue to cause controversy. Social housing projects have yet to resolve the problem for more than half of the population.6
Small photo studios, quite popular around rural Egypt, traveled with the populations into informal Cairo. Both Ahmed’s mother and father have kept images of themselves and family members posing against popular backdrops in studios. It was not until 1969, that his father was able to purchase his first privately owned camera. Firstly, a Polaroid and then a Nikon in 1970. The documentation would change extensively thereafter. In September of 1969, his father migrated yet again, leaving Egypt behind, and headed towards the US, when he landed a job at a local bank. In 1983, he migrated to Kuwait, and Ahmed was born a year later. Thus are the highlights of the trajectory that the photographs show us.
Ahmed remembers a lot of separation, displacement of family members between the Gulf, the US, and Egypt. It was rare to have the entire family in one place, and the reason for moving was always better work opportunities. When Ahmed visited Egypt in 2014, he was planning on a short visit. He met with a few artists, including Hamdi Reda, founder of Artellewa in the neighborhood of Ard el Lewa. Ahmed could not explain how, but he never left, he was drawn to the place, and asked to rent a studio and later an apartment with the help of Hamdy and other friends. It might have been the sense of community that he was lacking in other places, that led him to anchor himself in this locale. The foundation of informal building blocks is based on a community-led effort of creating life with little support from authorities. When material needs are scarce, a radical sense of solidarity brings comfort, confronting Ahmed with that which was lacking in his life.
His project came about shortly thereafter, inspired by becoming a witness in Ard el Lewa. The space mirrored his internal trajectory. Through the eyes of a foreigner who looked and identified as a local, he noticed cultural symbols in the daily fabric. What he saw on the outside was merely the state of change that took place within his own psyche. His relationship to Egypt, and to his parents would radically change. He created photographic collages, paintings, sculptural objects. He turned his studio into a photography studio and began inviting local men to get their images taken. He would ask them to pose as they would for their social media pages and offer a high-res image in return. Whether consciously or not, he was reconstructing memories from his ancestral past.
It was after he dabbled with photomontage that he realized that he was on a quest towards his own identity as a man coming from nowhere searching for home, it was a journey of returning. His carefully crafted images make no reference to a single place, but the narrative he traces is rather a universal problem of identification from the perspective of a perpetual wanderer. If the question of manhood is intrinsically tied to a nationalist identity, what place is there for those whose identity has been uprooted by the very nationalist project that upholds the notion of masculinity? What alternative narratives can one form around the male body? How can we unpack the notion of male identity beyond its understandably toxic traits? If we assume that toxicity is inevitable, then we are in for a losing battle. There has to be hope, whether in the emergence of gender fluid and trans-bodies, or simply in the expression of an identification that challenges the known roles of masculinity, wherein a man can be sensual, emotional, passionate and even nostalgic.
In 2021, the Barbican Center in London opened a large group exhibition of fifty artists, under the title Masculinities: Liberation through Photography. In the wake of the #metoo movement, the exhibition charted representations of masculinity, with photographic and filmic works spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. On the occasions where exhibitions explore what lies behind the masculine subject, we begin to see the fragility, fear and insecurities, that are embedded within the dangerous divide between male and female. This problem is far from the novel, it rather reiterates the binary thinking that reduces the question of gender into simplified social codes. Erotic dancer and political activist Valentine de Saint Point, in a manifesto penned in 1912, calls for a new definition. “[It is] absurd to divide the world into women and men; it is composed only of femininity and masculinity […] that is to say a complete being.”7
At Tintera gallery where Ahmed’s work is exhibited, one of the rooms one can find an ever-growing archive of photography from and about Egypt. Since the early twentieth century, gallery managers Heba Farid and Zein Khalife notice, there has been a trend of women posing as men in photo studios across Egypt. Similarly, an editorial published in 1958 in Cairo Observer social media page shows men in Upper Egypt photographed dressed like women. The fluidity of gender binaries rooted in traditional culture has been eradicated over time with the encroaching of modernist ideas from the urban center into rural Egypt. The modernization of the nation-state cannot be divorced from the colonial apparatus that sought to define the so-called orient in terms that eradicate its fluidity and ever-shifting landscapes.
1Exhibition Essay written by Nadine Nour el Din, published by Tintera Art, October 27, 2021 » link: https://www.tintera.art/i-never-revealed-myself-to-them-catalogue-essay
2A., Lina. “How Does Egyptian State Propaganda Influence and Shape Male Subjectivities?”, Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 7 No. 2, 24 November 2021.
3Hooks, Bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
4Ghannam, Farha. Live and Die like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
5A., Lina, op.cit.
6Sims, David. Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011.
7De Saint Point, Valentine. Manifesto of a Futurist Woman, Response to F. T. Marinetti., 25 March 1912.