Darkroom in the Desert at the Fayoum in Egypt

Updated on January 22, 2023 by Meg

I recently traveled from Cambridge Massachusetts to Tunis, Egypt to lead a photography workshop at an oasis in the desert.  I had visited Cairo and Alexandria the year before and I wanted to more fully immerse myself in Egyptian life so when the opportunity to be part of an art retreat in the heart of the country presented itself, I booked my flight.

Its water source the Nile itself, this verdant and lush oasis in the Sahara of central Egypt known as the Fayoum has been inhabited from the time before the Pharaohs. The name Fayoum may come from the Coptic word for sea, or from the time it took to build the canal which connects the area to the Nile, alf youm, a thousand days. The Fayoum is in the shape of a lotus flower and that canal has been called its stem; others see the Fayoum as fetus-shaped, and the canal the umbilical cord. Without that connection, the Fayoum would be completely surrounded by desert, isolated from the ebb and flow of life, and unable to survive.

Although its fortunes have ebbed and swelled, the Fayoum has a legacy of art-making from the time of the Roman occupation. In the eras from 100 BCE until the about the middle of the third century CE, those who were mummified for burial were outfitted with uncannily realistic portraits, painted in encaustic and tempera, then placed over the head of the linen-wrapped corpse. The dry Egyptian climate insured that these precursors to Coptic icons were preserved over the centuries.

Flash forward twenties centuries to 2006, when Egyptian painter Mohamed Abla and his family established a retreat for artists in the village of Tunis, along with a unique museum for cartoons. The Ablas joined two Swiss potters, who had previously come to this spot to make pottery with a unique fusion of European, Islamic and folk traditions. Along with the art facility, Abla inaugurated a small museum to house another of his passions, Egyptian caricature art of the twentieth century.  Now, every winter, painters, print-makers and sculptors come to the Fayoum from all over the world to participate in six weeks of workshops at The Winter Academy, run by Mohamed’s son Ibrahim.

Ibrahim Abla is himself a filmmaker. Educated in Switzerland and Cairo, Ibrahim has a vision for The Art Center in Fayoum. He and his wife Anna have made a home with their two young children in Tunis. As they grow their family, they have made a commitment to grow the center beyond the six weeks of the Winter Academy and the Caricature Museum. The Ablas foresee a year-round, global creative hub for visual artists, musicians, environmentalists, writers and creatives of all stripes. Even more, whatever barriers may exist between a Western art haven and the local communities, are becoming ever more porous as local involvement and understanding evolves.

For artists who so often do their work in isolation and uncertainty, the setting of the Fayoum, with its beauty and isolation is a natural fit for The Fayoum Art Center and the Winter Academy. Here in the desert is a retreat and residency that offers community, connection and collaboration. Freeing the artist from the demands and distractions of everyday life, the art center offer the nourishing waters of support, understanding, time and space to make art. When this energy is compounded by the friction produced when multiple cultures and disciplines intersect, the sparks can ignite new visual idioms and fresh world views for those who are receptive.

Arriving on a Thursday afternoon, we were eight artists of different disciplines from Egypt, Germany, Austria, the UK and the States who had never met before. Ruth and Sarah were both from Cairo, one a creative and voice-over artist in the advertising community, the other newly returned from U.C. Davis and trying to decide between a career in medicine or photography; Michaela, an established architect from Berlin and her friend Greta who participate together in residencies around the world; Tina, a designer and installation artist from Bonn: and Maya, an elementary school teacher on a six-month sabbatical to explore art and decide if a career change was what she needed.

L to r Ibrahim Abla, participants and myself at the end of an intense week, A highlight of a residency in The Winter Academy is meals cooked outdoors and shared by all Photos: Liz Doles

We had differing levels of experience, differing expectations and asked different questions. Every morning, after sharing a traditional Egyptian breakfast of falafel and beans, we gathered to inspire and structure our day, one-day making cameras, another day creating photograms or working independently.

Pin-Hole Photography: 19th Century Roots of Image-Making Processes

In this age of advanced digital technology, we went back to photography’s nineteenth century roots, making photograms and our own pinhole cameras. Photograms and the pinhole camera are fundamental in the history of photography, both part of the earliest image-making processes.

A pinhole camera, like all cameras, no matter how sophisticated, is simply a light proof box with an opening to admit light onto sensitized film or paper, or onto a sensor. The difference here is that a pinhole camera has, rather than a lens, a tiny hole to serve as aperture.

Queen Hatepshut Tomb, pinhole photograph, Ektar 100 color film, Buyers and Sellers at the Camel Market near Cairo, pinhole photograph, Ektar 100 color film Photos: Liz Doles

To create a photogram, while in a darkened room, the photographer simply places objects that might be of interest as silhouette onto a sheet of light sensitive paper then hit the lights for just a moment to expose the bare paper thus creating an image once the paper is developed. Anna Atkins was one of the pioneers of this method, famously documenting the flora of England in delicate photograms.

Before the digital revolution, making a photograph was a time consuming and not inexpensive enterprise. Negatives had to be developed in complete darkness, black and white printing was done in the eerie ambiance of red safe lights which wouldn’t affect light sensitive paper, developing chemicals had to be the right temperature and the photographer had to have the patience to wait until an image emerged in the tray of developer to see it they actually had captured the picture they were after.

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Dust Storms and Communal Meals

Engaging in this process in the desert presented many challenges. There were dust storms. It rained. Electricity was cut off. The only analog photo lab in Egypt is in Cairo. Not an insurmountable issue since Cairo is about two hours away, but Darkroom Cairo was closed at the time. How were we to develop our pictures? The owner Mohamed Abdel Wahab graciously lent me essentials of darkroom supplies including the chemistry, safe light, trays and tongs required. We commandeered an empty room, blocked any light from coming in the windows, mixed the developer and fixer and stop needed to develop negatives. We were good to go! We plugged in the safe light. Nothing. Our safe light was useless making it impossible to work. But our intrepid group was saved by twenty first century technology and we flicked on our red light phone apps and developed our paper negatives.

Boys playing in the streets of Tunis Village and happy to engage with the photographers from The Winter Academy, Potters working in millennia-old tradition create the same pottery used by the pharoahs Photos: Liz Doles.

It's not only in the throes of actual art-making and technical troubleshooting that Ideas and experience are exchanged. Communal meals, formal presentations and spontaneous talk allowed us to be participants in each others practice. Each evening after breaking bread together, two artists gave presentations of their work and spoke of their creative lives. By the end of the week, we were a tight band who had connected with each other and with our host country through our work and the generous welcome showed us as we became part of the community.

We not only connected with each other in the here and now, but left the compound of the Art Center to visit a village called Nazla, where potters made the same vessels as in the time of the Pharoahs. We roamed freely around Tunis where everyone was used to tourists and foreigners but where no one had seen anything like a pinhole camera. We were inspired by the desert, by the immense lake at the heart of the Fayoum, the architecture with its decorated facades and doorways. Like the time capsule that is the Fayoum, the work we made in the seven day workshop was just a beginning. Our exchange with each other and with the residents of Tunis was part of a millennium old continuum of artistic production and cultural exchange, all taking place in a very small but very vibrant place on earth.

Follow Liz and her view on the world through pinhole photography on https://www.facebook.com/Liz-Doles-392657377559615/

For more on The Art Center in Fayoum and the Winter Academy, visit https://www.facebook.com/fayoumartcenter/


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