|Young Egyptian photographer looks at the urban condition with fresh eyes
|Osama Dawod's shots of city streets capture fleeting moments in artworks destined to disintegrate
What makes the experience of living in any particular city unique? In terms of how an urban environment looks, what distinguishes London from Paris, New York from Los Angeles or Cairo from Beirut?
Putting aside the tourist traps, historical monuments and civic structures that exist to varying degrees everywhere, what differentiates one dense tangle of inner-city neighborhoods from another? Are storefront graphics, signage scripts or architectural styles sufficient as reliable markers of place, especially when what often lends a given city its creative energy and cosmopolitan edge is precisely its complex mix of cultural influences and historical traces? Once you delve into the close-knit threads of an urban fabric - the streets where people live and work and move through their everyday routine - how do you orient yourself in one city in relation to others you may know, dread or dream to be in? And moreover, what affect does globalization - whether understood as crassly commercial (brand logos, movie advertisements) or youthfully empowered (graffiti, wild posting campaigns) - have on the visual culture of cities that presume to be distinct?
All these questions lurk in the work of young Egyptian photographer Osama Dawod, who is fresh off his first solo show at the Townhouse Gallery, a hotbed of contemporary art tucked among a handful of mechanics' shops on a tree-laden dead-end street in Downtown Cairo. Dawod, 24, has been taking pictures for just three years. But already he has carved out an ambitious and provocative project, exploring the surfaces and textures of cities "in the context," he explains, "of global urbanism where display, consumption and spectacle define the everyday." The exhibition at Townhouse represents an auspicious beginning to what will no doubt prove to be bigger and bolder body of work.
"There are 10 images in the current exhibition and I have chosen not to title the show as my emphasis is on the medium - photography," says Dawod, who is tall and rail thin, with a face that breaks easily into a wide smile. "This body of work was produced as a series, and the images selected are from a larger body of work dealing with the urban context, or more simply, the city. The important point of departure for me was the observation of a foreign city which, on the surface, has many of the same attributes as Cairo, yet exists within a different social [and] political framework."
And therein lays the first trick to Dawod's show. There is nothing in the exhibition to indicate what specific city serves as the subject of this work. Dawod deliberately avoids recognizable landmarks and emphasizes instead the mundane details of daily life. Looking at these 10 images - featuring, for example, a sexy billboard advertising the global clothing company Zara, a "post no bills" stencil on a temporary construction wall, peeling paint on a huge brick building facade, a window into a minimal modern design boutique, a trolley selling street food that is covered in stickers and topped with an umbrella - one is tempted to rely on the logic of the artist's bio and assume, since Dawod is Egyptian and lives in Cairo, that he shoots his home town. Of course, Dawod is intensely aware of that tendency (especially in the art world where critics and curators all too often apply a sort of geopolitical tokenism to their work) and he flips it nicely on its head. The 10 images exhibited in Dawod's gallery debut were all shot on the streets of New York, a good long way from Cairo. Clever, no?
"I stress it is the general idea of the city and not any specific city that interests me, whether it's Cairo or New York City," explains Dawod. "Overall, I'm interested in the universal reality behind the illusions that a place like America and New York City puts forth, because I think that, at certain moments, New York is just like anywhere, especially in terms of the lack of basic rights and freedoms."
Such conceptual gamesmanship has the effect of pushing viewers to reassess how they view the city - what they look for, latch onto and conclude from the details they see. In his camera, Dawod frames urban inscriptions, bits of text and images that are etched onto the surfaces of a city at street level. His work deals with what urban theorists such as Elizabeth Wilson and others term "indeterminate or interstitial spaces," places that have been forgotten, overlooked, lain derelict, but which nonetheless serve as mysterious, even romantic sites of potential. Dawod calls into question the ways in which these traces impressed on the urban landscape communicate meaning. What visual material suggests that a city is first world, third world, developing, modern, contemporary, wounded, scarred, recovered or reborn anew? What can be read as exotic, generic, authentic or contrived?
From there, Dawod takes his work a step further to incorporate a second trick. In addition to toying with notions of place, he plays with the materiality of his work as well. His images are monumental in that they are large scale. But they are also precious in that they are printed on extremely thin, disposable paper that is bound to disintegrate quickly. His artworks are - quite literally - destined to disappear, as the form not only relates to but also emulates the content.
"I use a 35-millimeter camera," he says, "and the images in the current exhibition are ink-jet prints on poster paper, from scanned negatives without any retouching or Photoshop work. My idea is to make these prints similar to posters in the street, pasted on the wall in a random fashion mirroring spontaneous displays found in urban streets. By presenting them in a gallery space, in a formal layout, I wanted to draw attention to the value of this sort of ephemeral existence, and the different ways people react to it: Some people rip the posters down; others write on them. The lifespan of a poster is dependent on the context in which it's placed, torn, ripped, censored."
Dawod studied at the faculty of fine art in Cairo. He has worked with filmmakers and photographers and has attended workshops with, among others, the Magnum legend Abbas. At present, in addition to taking his own pictures, Dawod also does graphic design work for Townhouse, a practice that influences his eye for composition and, as he explains, "attracts me to certain visual and graphic elements and how they relate to and inform each other." His exhibition at the gallery, which finished its run two weeks ago, may mark his solo debut, but Dawod has shown his work at Townhouse before. For PhotoCairo, a group show in 2003 devoted to young and emerging talent, the gallery "invited me to create an open studio environment on the second floor of the main building," he recalls. (The gallery is spread across multiple floors in an old Ottoman-style building and also operates another space in an old factory around the corner).
"While this exhibition was a part of the larger fringe of exhibitions it was meant as - and became - a meeting point for the younger photographers involved in the activities and workshops of PhotoCairo."
When PhotoCairo rolls around again in December 2005, Dawod hopes to unveil the next stage of his project. If this first outing was anything to go by, the next will definitely be worth checking out.
For more information on Osama Dawod's work and the upcoming edition of PhotoCairo, check out www.thetownhousegallery.com
The Daily Star