In 1849 French novelist Gustave Flaubert, along with his friend Maxime du Camp, set out to explore the Nile Valley. Aged 27 and as-yet-unpublished, he traced a well-trodden path of Le voyage en Orient delineated by Francois-René de Chateaubriand and Alphonse de Lamartine before him. Flaubert’s prurient rhapsodies, along with du Camp’s more prosaic travelogue and photography, became Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury’s guide for his own travels in Egypt over a century later. The resulting show, ‘Suite Egyptienne’, which collects over eighty images taken between 1985 and 1998, is predictably suffused with nostalgia, but tempered with a welcome disposability that saves it from becoming too cloying or precious.
Unfortunately the images, predominantly black-and-white with a darkly lyrical, enigmatic quality, are let down by a particularly sloppy install. Large landscapes printed on wallpaper, a material that gestures towards ephemerality, appear pleasingly flat from some distance and are at a scale that invites the viewer to fall into the frame. Visible rebate edges and vignettes further lend them a vintage air. Yet they bubble insubordinately along their tops in a manner that indicates a distinct lack of care. These rocky desert landscapes are interspersed with scatter-plotted clusters of small snapshots (dry-mounted on aluminium but resembling foam board advertisements in a travel agency), and pristine medium-sized prints behind glass, a farrago that further contributes to the show’s rather haphazard feel.
An architect-turned-photojournalist, Elkoury is best known for documenting the emotional textures of war, and for cofounding the Arab Image Foundation in 1997. Unlike his compatriots, however, Elkoury’s preoccupation with the archive mines a more intimate territory. He was particularly drawn to Flaubert’s more titillating passages about the courtesan Kuchuk Hanem in Esna, an Upper Egyptian town of exiled sex workers which in its time was as much of a landmark for European tourists as the pyramids. He described her earthy sensuality as brutal, while du Camp compared her to an apparition, and it is in this second, more ethereal guise that she haunts Elkoury’s series. She is collapsed with the artist’s then-wife Nada, who accompanied him on his travels, most overtly in Kuchuk Hanem (1990), in which Nada sprawls over a particularly sumptuous satiny sofa. It’s a lovely, playful portrait. Nada’s face is obscured by a fan or perhaps a feather duster, its shape echoed in her splayed 1950s-style circle skirt, but the eye is drawn to the very sensible t-bar school sandals on her kicked-up feet; the scene conjures up a particularly domestic kind of tenderness.
In a letter to a family friend written shortly after his arrival in Cairo, Flaubert enthuses: ‘The detail gets hold of you, grips you tight, squeezes you, and the more engrossing it is, the less are you able to take in the ensemble.’ It’s a quote which holds true for the show even if its second part – ‘then, little by little, it begins to harmonize and fall into place according to the laws of perspective’– never quite arrives. Still, there’s a seductive luxury to be found: not in the faded glamour of Cairene interiors, clattering souk scenes or temple carvings, so much as these smaller details. Neon signs that seem to sing the blues or a horse’s eyelashes.
Nada holds a fan to her face again in Beit Suheimi, Nada (1990), but here it feels like an emotional prophylactic. She reappears many times but never connects with Elkoury’s gaze. She is silhouetted, half-shrouded or mostly blurred, always turning away from him, and it is in this sentiment of a love already exhausted that the show is most affecting. The exhibition as a whole suggests a string section just beginning to swell, bowing at a single heartstring. We never hear the whole ‘Suite Egyptienne’, just its coda.
Main Image: Fouad Elkoury, Oum Koulthum, 1990, ink-jet print on Baryta paper, 60 x 90 cm. Courtesy: The Third Line, Dubai, UAE