A disembodied shadow caught on a foliage-etched wall, birds in flight over the blurred silhouettes - or are they shadows - of Casuarina trees and vibrating date palms and a young man’s head wreathed in billows of greasy-looking smoke are just some of the oneiric images that comprise Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s latest project, Beyond Here Is Nothing.
Featuring sometimes experimental photographs that have captured on her mobile phone, Beyond Here Is Nothing represents the second chapter in El-Tanawy’s ongoing journey of self-exploration, an investigation of her fractured sense of identity and her unfulfilled quest for a place she can call home.
Born in the UK to Egyptian parents, El-Tantawy lived in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the US before she moved back to Egypt in 2007 with the aim of finally settling down.
Living and working there throughout the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath, the artistic result of El-Tantawy’s journey was the body work that became In The Shadow of the Pyramids (2015), a book that won the photographer numerous awards and set both her career and her life on its current path
A personal journey made over the course of six tumultuous years, In the Shadow of the Pyramids offered an emotionally charged and profoundly personal take on the 2011 Egyptian revolution as well as a lyrical meditation on notions of identity, both personal and national.
The product of the photographer’s attempt to turn the country of her childhood dreams and family holidays into her adult home, In The Shadow of the Pyramids resulted in a significant psychological and emotional toll which unfolds, obliquely, throughout Beyond Here Is Nothing.
“I was always looking for Egypt as a home. A place to live in, to have a family in, to take root. All of the things that you to attach to the idea of home,” El-Tantawy explains, speaking from London, her base for much of the last decade.
“But I hadn’t spent any time there as an adult. I only knew it from the very innocent perspective of a child,” she admits.
“After seeing the revolution and how it culminated, all the people that died and the lives that changed, I realised that Egypt wasn’t a place where I wanted to live.”
In letting go of the idea of Egypt as anything other than a poetic, ancestral and emotional home El-Tantawy feared that she was letting go of her identity.
“Can I still say I am Egyptian with a sense of confidence,” she offers, “if I don’t live there?”.
Even before In The Shadow of the Pyramids, El-Tantawy had already experienced the same confusing mixture of cosmopolitanism, loneliness and dislocation that defines the earlier years of so many third culture individuals, children who are raised in a culture other than their parents’.
“It’s certainly not unique to me, but I feel that growing up between two very different cultures and constantly trying to navigate between them comes at a certain emotional weight that you carry with you,” the photographer explains.
“The friction between the cultures seeps into relationships, into communication, into language. I sometimes think in Arabic but I speak in English and it doesn’t really make much sense,” she says.
“Eventually you feel pushed away emotionally from the places where you spend most of your time. How do you wake up from that? I feel like the camera became a tool that allowed me to reflect on that.”
Beyond Here Is Nothing is full of such reflections as well as vignettes of ungraspable moments. Full of shadows, double exposures, blurred outlines and spectral silhouettes, a melancholy portrait of restless rootlessness that is neatly summed up by El-Tantawy’s haunting description of her own sense of loneliness.
“Enclosed between four walls, the sound of silence never seemed louder. It’s claustrophobic. I wait for the phone to ring, check for emails obsessively, eat everything out of the fridge. The hunger remains,” she writes.
“I feel like if I dig my hand deep into my soul, I will find nothing. The awareness I am experiencing is unspeakable. Faces change when we meet. Is their solitude reflected in mine? There is an awkward silence.”
Simultaneously open to interpretation and opaque, universal and specific, Beyond Here Is Nothing explores similar territory to that mined by the self-taught Franco-Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal.
Photographic journeys through identity’s shadowy hinterlands, they question profoundly cherished notions identity while encouraging viewers to explore and confront their own.
Beyond Here is Nothing is on show at Gulf Photo Plus until 7 April.
Images courtesy of the artist and Gulf Photo Plus.