Last weekend, tens of millions of Egyptians went to the polls to elect a leader. The supporters of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood claimed victory, but his opponent has contested the claim and Egyptians are waiting to see what happens next. The results, or near-results, are not exactly what most people hoped for when Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow their dictator roughly sixteen months ago. The two candidates vying for the top spot weren’t exactly impressive and as The Nation explained:
Both men were polarizing figures and their candidacies evoked the binary political landscape that prevailed in Egypt in the decades leading up to the revolution. Enthusiasm among the electorate was clearly low, with many voters saying their choice of candidate was based largely on preventing the other from reaching the presidency.
The situation in Egypt continues to be tense and the future is far from certain as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces assumed control of all branches of the Egyptian state.
But this difficult political reality offers a curious, if erie, backdrop to a show at Parker’s Box in Williamsburg that is exhibiting images of a every day life in pre-Revolutionary Egypt. Taken years before the uprising, photographer Michael von Graffenried walked around Cairo with a small panoramic Widelux camera that he could operate without his subjects being aware of his picture taking. The results are cinematic in feel because of their long horizontal formats and the scenes are inhabited by subjects who look at ease.
The main gallery includes two YouTube videos that attempt to give a context to the works around them. The video of a man being beaten by an Egyptian police officer is most directly related to a work as it’s placed close to von Graffenried’s “Riot Police” and gives that image more of an ominous feel. The photographer believes that this video from years ago was one of the matches that lit the anti-governmental fire that eventually consumed the dictatorship. The other video of young boys doing some sort of dance of seduction is meant to relate to his “School’s out for girls” (2007) but the relationship seems less direct. The videos share with the photos the feeling of being found. These are moments of life trapped in screens and behind glass.
While the large format color photographs dominate the space, there are also smaller black and white and color images that give you glimpses of life in a garbage dump, college campus and camel market. They are well composed, picturesque and surprisingly uneventful.
The galleries at Parker’s Box feel rather sparse for this show but the visual silence of the walls endow the images with a sense of clarity, forcing you to look at details. “Riot Police” is hung in a doorway, and you’re forced to see it from a rather close distance as you move into the rest of exhibit. It’s an effective placement that conjures up the anxiety we all feel when we spot police amassed for seemingly no reason. When you turn the corner and spot the YouTube video of police brutality, the impact of the photograph changes again.
In the back gallery, a video segment explaining the artist’s thoughts and series is projected onto a wall [it’s embedded below for your convenience]. While the video explains some of the complexity of the project and von Graffenried’s process, the photographs work better alone. These are images of a world that no one could’ve suspected would be gone so quickly. The photos do idealize this world that existed only a short few years ago, giving the scenes a frieze-like classicism with their unusually long perspectives and lined up figures in a seemingly shallow space, but the photographs don’t cover up the warts either — this is why they work.
Michael von Graffenried’s Inside Cairo continues at Parker’s Box (193 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until July 15.