In the Shadow of the Pyramids

Image: Laura El-Tantawy | Text: Steven Gartside

Coherent narrative tends to be the preserve of a certain kind of fiction or film. It is a form where convention suggests a beginning, a middle and an end. Most other things do not follow the same pattern. In everyday life, there is usually a lot more uncertainty, mess and confusion, it is not always so clear as to exactly where we are going. Beginnings and endings do not always happen in the right place. It is difficult enough to tell any story, one that involves violence, conflict and contestation adds significantly to the demands of the task. In these circumstances, often it is just the peaks and troughs of experience that are made visible. Ideally, we should also be receptive to the things in-between, the subtlety and nuance that help define a situation.


In Raymond Queneau’s book Exercises in Style, the author sets out to tell a short anecdote about a man travelling on a bus. This is done first in a concise note form, it is then repeated in 99 different ways, with a different style, form or feeling. The sections range from Precision through to Prognostication, via Comedy, Insistence, Hesitation and Ignorance. The original story is banal and ordinary, its content is not the point. What matters is the way in which the same story changes, the way the writer is able to manipulate and adjust the basic material to provide something new. In one way it is a demonstration of the facility of the writer, the ability to apply technical and restrictive methods in order to open out the possibilities of how we might look at something. Beyond its value as a technical exercise, it is also a reminder of the need to be aware of perspective, that sometimes we need another view. It also draws attention to the influence of the author and the responsibilities that are present in the telling of any story.


Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids, has an acute awareness of the difficulties of finding a voice to represent a complex situation. It was produced between 2005 & 2014 and although personal loss was the starting point, it soon became caught up in the growing sense of tension, political resistance and violence that enveloped Egypt itself. The images depict chaos, fear and threat alongside family memories of a more sentimental kind. The majority of the images seem to have developed out of a need to be in and amongst areas of the city, as well as being amongst the people themselves as they take to the streets. Rather than trying to play the role of dispassionate observer, there is a concern with narrative, but not in the sense of providing a neat beginning, middle and end. It poses a more specific and immediate question – how do you tell a story when the plot keeps changing? This becomes the difficulty and perhaps also the essence of the work. It may also lead to the decision for the work to exist on multiple platforms and in different configurations. It is a collection of images, which can be selected and shown in the form of an exhibition. It is a book, which explores the possibilities and limitations of the consecutive page. It is also an installation with multi-screen projection, lightboxes and soundtrack. The work tries to find a place for the personal within the political. The soundtrack contains the voice of the artist negotiating her own position in the midst of an unfolding situation. In isolation, some of the images echo the problems associated with the voicing of the work, more information is required, more layers are needed to reveal the urgency of the narrative.


When looking at an image, without the co-ordinates of a specific location it can be a challenge to work out whether the orange glow on the far horizon line shows a sunrise or a sunset. In this situation, the beginning of a new day, or the ending of an old one, become the same thing. When caught in the stillness of the image, things are not so certain, the sun can rise or fall in equal measure. This position of ambiguity only occurs after the event of course. In the midst of an experience, we have no such doubts, we tend to know where we are in the course of the day. Once the certainty of time and space have gone, we are left with something much more ambiguous. A sunrise and a sunset each have their own wide and imaginative range of associated metaphors and with the right context we can read anything into their occurrence from optimistic beginnings to apocalyptic endings. It is an occurrence of nature that encourages speculation on the part of the viewer. If you happen to be looking at a glowing skyline through a window stained with dust and dirt, then uncertainty is given more of a sense of the grubby realities of day-to-day existence.


The raised-up viewpoint always contains the advantage (as well as the illusion) of knowledge and potentially a little bit of power. It is clear where everything is, even if we are not sure why it is there. The scene unfolds before us, we may not have all the information, but it is natural to try and piece things together in order to get a sense of a situation. When we look down upon a group of people below us, individual figures are still able to retain their identity, but they are also part of a wider scene. Are people there by design, or is it just happenstance, an end-point, or the beginning of something else. The reader looks for signs of what the nature of that interaction might be, whether there is a shared sense of purpose or cause. There is tension, yet there is also stillness and calm. The figures that have stopped stand out, their outlines become distinct, their clothes discernible (in a limited way). Those on the move appear as blurred forms. This is emphasized by the night, the substantial shadows which start to encroach into the discussion. The light stretches bodies into giants, or they become amorphous as their edges blur and shadows merge. In the end, everyone is always underneath somebody else’s shadow. We always have the possibility of becoming obscured under numerous shadows, ones that are not possible to escape.

With some photographic images, when we look, we do not always get much in return. Not all subjects are so amenable to the gaze. Work presented in a set or sequence inevitably requires more concentration. With contested and political spaces, the difficulty can be substantially increased. There are so many additional aspects to contend with. Potential meaning has to be calibrated not just on what we see, but on the circumstances out of which things emerge, the framing that information and history bring. Forms of excess are the things that most often create events; the news is geared around the direct and the dramatic. Whilst it is important that these points of excess are documented, it is of equal significance that we don’t lose sight of the spaces in-between. With the work from In the Shadow of the Pyramids, interspersed periodically between scenes of dramatic tension are images of a more banal nature, as well as the softened images of the personal archive. Alongside the unfolding of the political narrative there is also the everyday, which continues to meander in its own unique way. Even in the midst of conflict and the contested spaces of resistance, ordinary things still happen.


With any story, there are always a number of ways in which it might be told. In moving between image, book and installation there are multiple possibilities. The viewer will always construct their own narrative, but in pointing to the lack of a fixed position it mirrors the complexities of the situation from which it was produced. In the installation, images confront and compete; statements are made and overlaid. The combination of all these things make it more complex. It is messy, but it is also perhaps necessary. The distractions and the stillness that exist in between the points of tension are all part of the story.