Being named the overall winner in the 2016 Absa L’Atelier art competition didn’t only change Nourhan Maayouf’s life as an artist, it provided part of the inspiration for the young Egyptian photographer’s upcoming solo exhibition at the Absa Gallery,
The Sea is Closed: Shallow Water.
Born and raised in Egypt, Maayouf has never ventured out of her home country. But winning the Absa L’Atelier award saw her spending six months at the renowned Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. This brought to life the complexities many Egyptians grapple with as they face the prospect of leaving behind their homes in search of a better life in the face of increasing political and economic instability.
“The importance of one’s original home has dramatically changed among many Egyptian youth, who suffered after the Arab Spring’s political and economic transitions. This has been felt in particular by middle-class Egyptians, who began to seek opportunities that would allow them to move, often outside the country. The result is that they have been forced to leave their memories and families behind to pursue economic and psychological wellbeing.”
Artwork: Did You Sleep Well
“In recent years I have battled anxiety from fear of independence, facing my obligations, and detachment from my family due to the social norms that prevent Egyptian women from leaving their family homes until they get married. I have also suffered from extreme loneliness due to my friends leaving Egypt, and been affected by the drastic economic situation in our country. All these circumstances have resulted in anxiety, and a strong desire to flee,” explains Maayouf of the inspiration behind the body of work on show.
In this sense, The Sea is Closed component of the exhibition analyses the contemporary relationship between one’s home and that individual’s independence. The sea, although it represents freedom, to so many Egyptians remains ‘closed off’.
The Shallow Water part of the exhibition reflects Maayouf’s personal emotional struggles between her home in Cairo and living in Paris for six months. It documents the struggles she experienced during this, her first-ever period of displacement.
“Arriving in Paris, a developed and free world, I thought I would get over all that I had suffered in Cairo. However, I still battled anxiety. I was chased by my memories, my unbreakable family bond, and my conservative upbringing, making it difficult for me to merge with the foreign world.
ShallowWater is a metaphor for my experience in Paris. I was neither a temporary tourist nor a permanent resident. I was swimming in a foreign world but still grounded to my home country,” she adds.
Artwork: I Smell Cairo
Aside from this inspiration, Maayouf’s time in Paris also saw her expanding her art practice to include video. This, says Dr Paul Bayliss, Absa Art and Museum Curator, speaks to the power of the Absa L’Atelier art competition to not only open new doors for artists, but broaden their personal and artistic perspectives as well. “So many L’Atelier artists find new inspiration in either their subject matter or medium during their art residencies awarded as part of the L’Atelier prizes. This is a valuable component of the competition, as it exposes artists to new experiences that eventually help shape their career. This is vital to young, up-and-coming artists,” notes Dr Bayliss.
Maayouf embarked on her artistic journey in 2010 by engaging with diverse forms of photography. She eventually settled on staged photography as her preferred style, working with simple props and natural lighting. She relies primarily on self-portraits, being the actor, having a private relationship with the camera, and freely expressing intimate issues.
The Sea is Closed: Shallow Water runs from 20 May until 15 June 2018 at the Absa Gallery. www.lateliercompetition.com