Fouad Elkoury retraces groundbreaking 19th century journey guided by contemporary muse.
“Suite Egyptienne” marks the Lebanese photographer’s fourth solo show in Dubai, capturing Egypt at the end of the last century.
An artist who has had unique access documenting pivotal figures and events in the Middle East, Fouad Elkoury‘s first entry into the photography field covered daily life in Lebanon. He then went on to capture life in Gaza and the Occupied Territories, resulting in Palestine, l’envers du miroir published by Editions Hazan, Paris in 1996. Two more books about the region followed, including Suite Egyptienne (1997) and Liban Provisoire (1998).
Born in Paris in 1952 to Lebanese parents, Elkoury first earned a degree in Architecture in London before turning his attention to photography. As a young adult, Elkoury witnessed a population living in the war-torn city of Beirut and personally documented Yasser Arafat’s escape from Beirut to Greece on the ship Atlantis. His interest in safeguarding images for posterity from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora lead him to co-found the Arab Image Foundation in 1997. Elkoury currently spends his time between Paris and Beirut.
The photographer’s work is currently being exhibited in “Suite Egyptienne” at The Third Line Gallery through 16 May 2017. Elkoury has participated widely in group and solo shows throughout the world, including the Gwangju Museum of Art and New York’s New Museum. His work is held in notable collections, including Paris’ Centre Pompidou and the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.
Elkoury’s latest solo show in Dubai includes the complete series, comprising 80 primarily black-and-white works of varying dimensions retracing a research mission taken by writer Gustave Flaubert and photographer Maxime Du Camp in 1849, with some never before seen images.
Flaubert and Du Camp travelled to Egypt on the behest of the French Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and Paris’ Académie des Instructions to “report on the Orient”. Gustave Flaubert, a writer steeped in literary realism, finished his masterpiece Madam Bovary shortly after returning from the journey, where a romantic relationship with courtesan Kuchuk Hanem resulted in Flaubert penning an Orientalist spin on his subsequent writings. In “Suite Egyptienne”, Elkoury revived the writer’s affair with the East with his timeless images of modern-day Egypt, as written in the press release for the exhibition:
Fouad’s work evokes a sense of nostalgia for the era of Flaubert’s romanticism, while also making us reminisce the Egypt of 1989. Suite Egyptienne is an intimate series of photos, a sequence of over 80 images taken a quarter century ago, showing the ephemeral and layered qualities of history.
This series includes a very intimate component – Elkoury’s then wife Nada. As Flaubert was influenced by Kuchuk Hanem, Elkoury inserted Nada into the series’ narrative. Nada makes various appearances throughout “Suite Egyptienne”, including a humourous image of Nada as the Egyptian muse herself, concealing her identity behind a fan. According to an essay from Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art Dr Kathryn Brown, the genius behind Elkoury’s images lay in both what we do see and what is obscured or missing:
Nada/Kuchuk- Hanem – is simultaneously present in, and absent from, the photograph. Although the woman’s body is visible, the viewer is forced to accept information about her that remains incomplete. There is, this image suggests, no refuge of certainty. Rather, the woman’s face, thoughts, and emotions remain as obscure as the unseen image in the frame above her head.
The other half of the historic duo and Flaubert’s good friend, journalist and photographer Maxime Du Camp’s images represent what might be considered an early “travelogue”, with Du Camp carefully documenting significant archeological monuments with a portable wooden camera. Using an early photographic technique known as the calotype process, Du Camp’s images were welcomed with much fanfare in Paris in 1852 and 1860 and represented a new concept: the idea of a photograph as truth-telling.
Conversely, Elkoury’s work although reflecting on Flaubert and Du Camp’s journey, represents much more than a series of carefully scripted scenes accurately capturing a specific time and place. In Elkoury’s world, the forces of fate and creativity play a part in shaping a particular image because as the artist once commented, “One can never quite predict the moment of the shutter’s release”. This results in what Dr Brown’s essay notes as an important distinction for the artist as a photographer:
Elkoury’s acknowledgment of the role that chance plays in his works has important consequences for the role of the photographer. No longer a person who has complete directorial control over the outcome of an image, the photographer is required to admit a vital link between creativity and uncertainty.
This link speaks of a fleeting moment of time, an echo or trace of history. This is where Elkoury really shines. In the absence of specifics, his work could easily be of Flaubert or Du Camp’s time. In this way, it is timeless. It is beyond empires, beyond relationships. As Dr Brown notes, Elkoury’s images are a testimony to the very legacy that is Egypt itself and one that is indeed “in complete submission to time”:
As a subtle dialogue with histories of Egypt, of colonial adventure, of personal relationships, and of photographic image-making, Suite Egyptienne enquires into the durability of human production and creativity. Ultimately, this exhibition suggests, it is the Egyptian landscape itself that prevails.
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