Staff writer Farah Desouky speaks with the founders of Tintera, Egypt's first photography-only gallery, to discuss the impact they've left on the local art scene.
Hidden in a narrow Zamalek street lies Tintera, home to rare photography collections by emerging and established artists from all over the world. Founders Heba Farid and Zein Khalifa share a background amongst Egypt’s circle of photographers, as well as a sentiment that the art form does not receive the legitimacy it deserves. Hoping to rectify this, they launched Tintera in 2019 to spotlight contemporary and historical photography.
Tintera is named after the ancient Egyptian town of Dendera, which hosts the Temple of Hathor, goddess of hearth, home and maternity. Within the temple, light rays pass through the walls and are reflected on to the land; a symbolism that embodies Tintera’s mission, mirroring the way camera lenses use light to tell the story of Egypt.
Staff writer Farah Desouky visited Tintera where she met Farid in person, and Khalifa over Zoom, to discuss the impact their gallery has had on Egypt’s local art scene, the way it has changed how audiences perceive and interact with photography, and their own personal history as artists and business partners driven by an unstoppable passion for the art form.
Why did you choose to exclusively curate photography?
FARID: We opened our doors three and a half years ago, but our story starts before that. Zein and I were both very focused on photography in our lives and our work, and we felt that there was something missing in Egypt that we could somehow contribute to. The more we researched, the more we understood Egypt's place within the historical context of photography. Given that Egypt doesn’t have a museum for photography, we felt that it was necessary to have some kind of dedicated place where you could see photography, in an environment that can host it.
KHALIFA: We always like to describe the gallery as a seed to what we hope will grow into something bigger, an institute or a museum, but you have to start somewhere, you know? So if you look at the gallery, it's not necessarily just an exhibition space, we hold the work of other artists. We try to have historical work and build up a library of books. We act as more than just a commercial gallery so that there's a potential for it to grow in different directions when the time is right.
The way you talk about the gallery space, it’s like you’re fighting for photography in a sense, why do you think it’s not getting the recognition it deserves in Egypt?
FARID: I don’t know if we have an answer. When we travel abroad, we see how photography is integrated into the public space, with photography-dedicated museums. Coming back to Egypt is really puzzling because Egypt is very central to the history and development of photography, yet there's no visible presence for it. It's a struggle that photography has always had, and the public consciousness in Egypt doesn’t recognize photography as a heritage object or an art form, it’s solely defined as a commercial tool or a technical skill.
Do you collect personal family archives?
FARID: We do have a small collection, which we call vernacular photographs. They’re amateur photos documenting personal events and of their everyday lives, so it's different from studio photographs, which were more seated and formal. Vernacular photography is a kind of domestic photography, essentially people’s personal documentation.
What was the collection process like?
FARID: It actually was a bit haphazard, rather than a streamlined process. There’s a huge market for vintage photography in Egypt, although we mostly watched it leave the country over the past 20 years. Now it’s collected by photography enthusiasts abroad, because we don’t have a central depository or a system to regulate and preserve the material. While most of the photos are already gone, it’s still an open faucet. As families leave their traditional homes, and the homes of their grandparents, they'll find boxes and suitcases hidden in closets and under beds. And they'll find tons of photographs that they cannot really identify.
That must’ve uncovered many hidden treasures, any stumbled upon stories?
KHALIFA: We're working with a young man now who came to us with his family collection, and we've kind of supported and encouraged him in preserving the photographs and piecing them together. We're also working with an artist on a revival of an archive that was exhibited in the 80s in Egypt and then sort of disappeared.
How do you think Tintera has helped create a space for emerging and established photographers?
KHALIFA: Having the gallery exist as a physical space created an opportunity for this work to either be seen again, or seen for the first time, or for work to even get made. Sometimes artists would have a project in mind, but they would question who’s going to end up seeing it, so just by having this space, Tintera has encouraged photographers to create.
FARID: It's also because of our background as photographers that we’re able to understand the process, we're very integrated into the medium. When people come to us with questions about how to handle material and how to think about it and talk about it, we're already there as practitioners as well, which is very different from how many other galleries are run by curators, managers, or organisers.
What are your personal photography styles?
KHALIFA: I did different things at different times. When I had my children, being a children's portrait photographer kind of fit into my schedule and it gave me access to my client base. And before that, I was just very interested in urban landscapes and social documentation.
FARID: Because I come from an art and design background. I'm a little bit more abstract, so I work on projects that have more of a conceptual theme, mostly dealing with urban landscapes as well as physical aspects of the body and personality.
When it comes to curating the exhibitions, is there a specific process?
FARID: Usually photographers come to us with a body of work. We look at it and help them edit and produce the work in a sense. There's always a discussion about the artwork and sizing and how things fit together. That’s exactly the role of a gallery, to be able to connect with the collector base and try to tap into what we think they’d like and what they're ready to understand. At the beginning though, since it's a new market in Egypt, we had to understand that there are only certain things people might be ready to buy as a photograph and put on their wall.
How do you balance between the audience and your artistic vision?
KHALIFA: I would give the example of Nermine Hammam’s work. She's quite an established artist, her latest body of work was something very personal but also quite dystopian and challenging to look at. But she thought, ‘Okay, I don't care, this is what I'm doing now, this is who I am’. As a gallery, we have to think of who's going to buy this. At the same time, she’s an established artist with an established collector base, and the response was very positive. If she hadn’t been well-known maybe the work probably wouldn’t have been easily accepted.
FARID: We can kind of gauge what the audience will be more or less interested in. However because we're not an institution that needs funding to keep itself alive, we rely on sales. And so the gallery is a vehicle for the artists to have an income, and part of our role is making those tough decisions, even though we may like the work, we know that it's not going to sell.
What was the reception to previous shows you’ve hosted at Tintera like?
FARID: We hosted nine solo shows and a number of group shows so far, and they've all been very different, and I think that's probably an exciting aspect that surprises people. To have this intense variety of photographers handling the subject or the medium or expressing themes in starkly different ways. It’s also interesting to see who's coming, and which shows attract which type of audience. For example, we had one exhibition by a Russian-Swedish photographer, Xenia Nikolskaya. Her project was titled ‘Dust’, where she spent more than 10 years travelling around Egypt and photographing abandoned villas and palaces. We had a wide audience coming to the gallery, not just because it was photography, but they were coming to see spaces they don't have access to.
KHALIFA: We've had people come to a few shows, and then suddenly buy something from the fifth show, and because all the shows are so different, people rediscover their taste and what photography means to them, so that’s definitely exciting.