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Downtown Photo Exhibit ‘Strong Independent’ Examines Womanhood & Power

Running till November 29th, the ‘Strong Independent’ exhibition challenges notions of female strength at Downtown Cairo’s Access Art Space.

Farah Desouky

Downtown Photo Exhibit ‘Strong Independent’ Examines Womanhood & Power

‘Strong independent’ - once a common phrase to celebrate powerful women who knew what they wanted, eventually turned into a satirical label shunning and demeaning women attempting to carve out their own spaces under patriarchy. It is this phrase that is the subject of thorough examination and reclamation within the lens of Beyn Collective’s photography exhibition, ‘Strong Independent’, curated by interdisciplinary designer Nike Dietrich, which reframes female strength at Downtown Cairo’s Access Art Space, running until November 29th.

The exhibition features projects by Berlin-based visual artist Najla Said, multidisciplinary artist Heba Khalifa, and photographer Lina El Geoushy. The three artists use photography as a medium to reframe the narrative around womanhood. 

Upon entry, the first thing you will see is a wall of traditionally ‘feminine’ colours, namely pink and red. Here, visitors are invited to write their own understanding of female strength on red or pink paper, and have it added to the wall - creating a collaborative and reflective space from the start.

From then on, ‘Strong Independent’ is divided into three rooms. The first houses Said’s project, Garden of Cairo. Before the exhibit’s opening, Said posted an open call on Instagram, asking current and former residents of Cairo to anonymously share locations and coordinates across the city that are associated with intimacy and desire. Said then went out to these locations to capture them through her photography, and at their centre, an apple - a representation of Said’s earliest personal memories of intimacy, as well as a reference to the tale of Adam and Eve. Through her photo series, she reframes seemingly mundane parts of the city as places of deep connection and fantasy, and in a sense collectively reclaims intimacy in Cairo.

“Garden of Cairo began from my own frustration with the feelings of guilt, shame and stigma that we all feel when it comes to discussing desire, and since that’s a cultural construct it made the most sense to make it an interactive project, through which Cairo residents could imagine themselves across the city and somehow make it our own reclaimed Garden of Eden.”, Said tells CairoScene, “I think the most impactful aspect is discussing our desires openly and seeing them placed on our city map.”

The second room is occupied by Khalifa’s project ‘Al Malakut’, a series of portraits featuring women she interviewed about what makes them feel safe. Each portrait came with a photograph of the respective woman’s handwritten answers. The project adds up to a photo collage of women thriving within their own personal idea of safety, whether it’s in their mother’s arms, or cuddling up with their pets. 

“I didn’t approach the project typically as a photographer, where I’d prioritize lighting or how my photo would look, the focus was on displaying what safety meant to the women I photographed and being part of their safe spaces without intruding, it was a very collaborative process,” Khalifa tells CairoScene, “And before bringing out the camera, it was a long process discussing and uncovering their safe spaces because it’s an ever-changing personal experience.”

Taking inspiration from Egypt’s golden age of cinema, Geoushy’s project, ‘Trailblazers: An Ongoing Research and Reclamation of Egyptian Womanhood”, takes over the third and final room with self-portraits. “My aim is to challenge the viewer's perception of what a strong woman is and to reclaim the history of Egyptian women, from dancers to lawyers and students,” Geoushy tells CairoScene. “The archival material is as important as my own self-portraits, hence it was in the centre of the space, I was always inspired by these films and the strong female characters who defy societal norms."

The artist dresses up as iconic characters from Egyptian films. Alongside these images, she attached archival documents and photographs, adding context by sharing the history of the actresses who first embodied these characters, such as renowned bellydancer Taheyya Kariokka.

Through each of these three projects, ‘Strong Independent’ offers three different perspectives on womanhood in Egypt - whether it’s in reclaiming intimacy, treasuring safety, or finding inspiration in the women from our past.


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