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Everyday life in extraordinary times: Egyptian Images from Australia

From Concept to Realization – Anne-Marie Willis

In August 2017, I returned to Australia after four years teaching in Egypt. It had been an incredible experience, and I didn’t want to think it had ended. A few months later someone showed me a photo taken in 1915 of an Australian soldier in Cairo with a pet kangaroo. Feeling nostalgic for Egypt and having been a photographic historian earlier in my career, I started researching.

What I found was a huge trove of early twentieth century photos of Egypt preserved in national collections and in every state of Australia. The reason was obvious. Egypt was where Australian troops were based during the First World War, one of the biggest encampments was at Giza right in front of the Pyramids, and thousands of volunteer soldiers and nurses heading overseas for the first time, took cameras with them. Amateur photography was still a novelty, and not yet regulated by military authorities. Photographers ventured into the back streets of Cairo, into rural areas, into the new suburbs of Maadi and Heliopolis; they recorded the wartime transformation of grand hotels into military hospitals, and buildings and places that are no longer standing. These photos were part of Egyptian history, yet they had never been seen in Egypt. Thus came the idea for an exhibition.

Selecting and organising the photos to tell historical stories was easy compared to the practical challenges. How to secure venues? How to to promote the exhibition and engage potentially interested communities? And how to do this from Australia? This was all done by working with partner organizations. The Arab Association for Civilization and Islamic Culture (AACIA) negotiated with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to secure the venues: the Palace of Amir Taz, Cairo and the Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria. Promotion happened via the AACIA, the Australian Embassy in Cairo, and via existing networks of Design and Applied Arts educators. Likewise, the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Architecture (CAMEA), University of Adelaide secured the venue of the State Library of South Australia and hosted Egyptian artists Shady Elnoshokaty and Eman Elbana on their first visit to Australia. There was much in-kind support from individuals and organizations, but without the financial support for exhibition production and transport, travel, promotion and other material costs from CAAR, CAMEA and the Australian Embassy in Cairo, the project would not have happened. My heartfelt thanks to all.

Image of photo exhibition on a stone wall.

Photo exhibition in Cairo

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