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Photographer with a cause
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 07 - 2010

Like Gauguin struggling to connect two worlds, photographer Hoda Baraka has found inspiration in the Nubian village of Gharb Soheil, writes Mohamed Morsi
What do Gauguin and Egyptian photographer Hoda Baraka have in common?
For one thing, Gauguin was infatuated by innocence and sincerity, qualities he searched for outside the boundaries of modern life -- in Tahiti, for example, where he lived from 1891 to 1893. Gauguin went back to France briefly, but he couldn't stomach it for long and headed back to the tropics in 1895, living the rest of his life as a rebel and outsider.
Hoda Baraka, too, is obsessed with innocence and unblemished places. She went to the village of Gharb Soheil, just south of Aswan, where she documented pristine beauty in a serene village untouched by the ravages of modernity.
There is another thing in common between Gauguin and Baraka. Gauguin strayed into art from the world of maritime navigation, which he had joined as a 17-year-old army cadet, and the world of banking, in which he had had a successful career as a stockbroker.
Baraka is also struggling to connect two worlds. She started out as a political economy student before discovering her passion for art, and she is a career environmentalist.
Baraka, who recently held an exhibition in a gallery in Maadi, depicts the life and scenery of Gharb Soheil with the sensitivity of an accomplished painter, using light and shade to enhance her favourite themes.
In Nubia, she trained her camera on architectural objects and unusual fauna and flora, as well as the life of ordinary people. There is a sense of joy in her work, a celebration of the ordinary and of the intense beauty of its extraordinary connotations.
The village of Gharb Soheil, where she lived, is visited by 300 tourists every day even in the heat of summer. This is a validation of its loveliness, no doubt, but it is also an uncomfortable augury of mass tourism. This kind of attention may strip Gharb Soheil of its innocence once and for all, and this worries Baraka.
What interested her most about the village was the simple style of its 30 or so adobe homes and the wonderful village people who inhabit a present, past and culture of which they are distinctly proud. The inhabitants may be making money by selling handicraft products to tourists, but they are also apprehensive of tourist projects that could obliterate their world.
Gharb Soheil may be a short distance from Aswan, but it is a long distance from contemporary life. The moment you step inside the village, you realise that you are in a very exceptional place, Baraka says.
The village is unencumbered by modernity and unspoiled by industry. It is an "open museum" for the art and culture of Nubia, as Baraka puts it. "They don't have hotels. Tourists stay in houses with domes and spacious courtyards."
Everything in the village is photogenic, rich in visual vocabulary and splendid with bright colours. There are beautiful houses to traditional designs, rare birds hopping from one rooftop to another, and domesticated crocodiles. The locals breed and tame crocodiles in their houses, not big ones, just the smaller and medium-sized ones.
Then there are the people, and Baraka cannot say enough about them. They are very proud of their culture, their simple clothing, and the sun bread that "they dip in cheese or molasses," she says.
The beauty of the place poses a problem for the photographer. The subject matter is so exotic that one is tempted just to record it as it is, without any further ado. "One can fall into the trap of unquestioning documentation and ignore aesthetic content," she notes.
Baraka describes her struggle to find a theme for her photographs. Photography is not a playful endeavour for Baraka, a serious environmentalist who is at home with important topics. Her involvement in photography started during a trip to Beirut, when she took part in an art workshop in a Palestinian refugee camp. After taking further courses in photography, she decided that she wanted to do photography professionally, but only on themes that interested her.
Art is an expression of commitment, she feels. In her work, she tries to give equal attention to art's aesthetic qualities, as well as to its content. She doesn't believe in turning art into public-relations materials. She wants her art to be magical and provocative, and also responsible.
A photographer with a cause, Baraka aspires to share the exceptional and subliminal with her audiences, as well as the tried and true.

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