There’s something mercilessly haunting about Osama Dawoud’s current exhibition “Rosetta at Artellewa art space. Perhaps it’s the drawn, haunted faces staring out from beyond the chemical pallor of the photo, or the sweeping reeds across the sand dunes.
Or it could be, having paid a brief glimpse to the blurb explaining the content of the 10 or so photos set neatly around the white-washed room, the eeriness of it, all filtered out to reveal a most stark and more depressing reality.
The photos were taken in a city on the North Coast of Egypt, a place most have heard of, but few visited. Despite being a favorite holiday destination for 19th century high class Britons hoping to catch a few rays from beneath their parasols, Rosetta, or rather, Rashid, is something more of a backwater in today’s climate, famous only for its eponymous stone.
Dawoud’s choice of subject matter is no doubt influenced by the migrant phenomenon that has seeped emotively into Egypt’s artistic senses in recent years. The bloated, asphyxiated bodies found swept onto Southern Europe’s beaches are a blighted testimony to the great growth that Egypt has seen in the past generation.
But Dawoud’s journey did not take him to the watery graves of those who perished, nor did he draw on the stark scar of the finality of death. Rather, he visited the site where the damaged numbed nerves continue to twitch, eking out a last breath of a life forever changed.
Thus Dawoud went to see the young men who came back. Having sailed over to Italy with the oft-told “hope for a better life, they found their ways, through deportation or simply lack of work, back to the backwater town dying a slow death.
As sea levels rise, the fishermen of Rosetta – Dawoud, one presumes, preferred to this title over the Arabic name to add a taste of deep-seated ironic tragedy of a once thriving fishing village resort – find that their age-old means of livelihood passed down from generation to generation is impracticable; It’s those who contribute least to global warming who pay its price.
The rising sea levels are being compounded, as Dawoud briefly explains, by aggressive coastal erosion “due to a decrease in sediment from the Nile and the force of local currents and waves.
Were the fishermen environmentally displaced, the situation might be different. As it is they sit in coffee shops finding solace in exchanging anecdotes of those halcyon days, before the industrial discharge began to take its toll.
Dawoud, who graduated from faculty of fine arts at the Cairo University before studying photography in San Francisco, captures Rosetta’s desolate horizons with an a discerning eye. Having photographed in the midst of winter, rather than under the warm, cascading light of an Egyptian summer, he elicits the chill hovering over the seaside town.
The light plays with a certain shallowness that cuts the figures and shapes like glass, leaving them bereft of any vestigial coziness. Dawoud has used the thin paleness of over-exposure liberally throughout his photographs, imbuing the subject matter with a cold intensity.
Looking through the window of a wrecked house onto the bay, Dawoud draws out the theme of destruction, which we see manifested again in the image of a gutted boat, shored up like a dead whale.
But the most powerful image among the 10 is that of the young fisherman sitting behind his pithy catch. Compared with the bustling fish sellers of the Cairo streets, their sacks overflowing with fresh, the young fisherman cuts a brooding, ghost-like figure.
He eyes the camera, and the photographer behind it, with suspicion, perhaps a touch of resentment for his more privileged circumstances that permit him to observe the residents’ throes from behind a lens.
This is Dawoud’s second solo exhibition in Cairo, the first being “I Need a Right shown in the Townhouse Gallery in 2005. He has also contributed to many group exhibitions, in Egypt, Europe and the US.
One hopes Dawoud will continue in this vein, delicately exposing global warming’s forgotten victims through hard-hitting, but nevertheless compassionate compositions.
“Rosetta is currently showing at the Artellewa Space for Contemporary Arts, 19 Mohamed Ali El-Eseary St., Imbaba, Cairo. Tel: 012 596 3611. Open daily from 4-10 pm, except Saturdays.