Rooted in both Egypt and the US, photographer and visual artist Amr Mounib shares Egyptian nostalgia with international audiences.
By Sherif Awad
Art has always been a part of Amr Mounib’s life. He was raised in the house of his grandmother Mary Mounib, the actress known as the ‘Empress of Comedy,’ and on the sets of her films and theatrical plays. His father Fouad Mounib, Mary’s son and the uncle of the late singer Amer Mounib, was the producer of the famous 1960s TV shows Maa al-Naas (With the People) and Min Gheir Kalam (Without Words). Amr’s sister Azza became a famous dancer and instructor in the United States. As for Amr, he grew up to become a world-renowned photographer and visual artist. His most recent exhibitions in the US capture the essence of Egypt’s land and people before and after the 2011 revolution.
“I never studied arts but I picked up little tricks and techniques from my father who was taking photography as a serious hobby using still and 8mm cameras,” says Amr. “Sometimes I used to steal his camera then return it while asking him to develop the film I made at the still-existing Antar Studio in Bab el-Louk. My father also was an oil painter who liked to draw the farmers at the countryside or near the Nile River in Maadi and Helwan in the 1960s, then he used to donate his artwork to friends and family.”
After Fouad’s shows were pulled from State TV in the aftermath of the 1967 War, the father decided to immigrate with his family to the US the following year. Settling down in Virginia, Fouad formed and managed a performing theatrical troupe with different nationalities until he passed away in 1977.
Landing in Virginia was not an easy experience for Amr as a child. “I survived a cultural, a geographical, a weather and a status shock,” says Amr about his early years in the US. “I was growing up in a family nurtured by the love of the Egyptian society, then all of a sudden I found myself living in a place where nobody knows who you are. One of the ways I adapted was to join the US Navy to make use of the education support for people in the military, since my father could not afford it. I then earned a degree in Natural Science and another degree in Film and Television while continuing my photography with new cameras emerging all the way.”
Over the following three decades, Amr went back to Egypt several times to reconnect with the rest of the Mounib family. He also settled down for a couple of years in France. “While I was in Paris, I was mentored by two photographers, the American Gene Finn and the Egyptian Fouli Elia, who became a photo editor of the French edition of Elle magazine,” he says. He worked in fashion photography for a decade until 1990, “when I moved from the fashion industry towards the contemporary art scene to express my own concerns and views of the world. A series called Fracture was my take on the Bosnian War. I photographed models covered with mud to reflect the loss of human life under the dust. In 2002, I started to experiment with painting and mixed media as an alternative way to present my photography.”
This past October, Syra Arts Gallery in Washington DC hosted Amr’s solo exhibition “Still Magic – Desolate Tears,” featuring photographs of mostly empty locations around Egypt taken between 2007 and 2011. Amr wrapped up 2013 with his “Fabric of a Nation Deja Vu Series2,” a solo exhibition of mixed media photography at Washington DC’s Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al-Quds. For the “Fabric of a Nation” pieces, he explains, “I was superimposing icons of flowers and around the portraits of Egyptians including that of Mary Mounib.”
Amr never forgot his childhood with his grandmother. “Mary Mounib was a very special lady,” he remembers. “Although she was famous for playing the manipulative mother in-law in classic Egyptian films, she was totally the opposite of that as a mother and grandmother. I used to go to play in her Shubra house where she was raising chickens in the backyard and receiving crates of fruits as gifts from the farmers around her. She always liked me to accompany her to Al-Rihani Theater, especially during summer vacations.”
The photographer explains that in those days, Egyptian theaters hired painters to draw the décor for the play, as opposed to building a full set with extensive props. “For me as a child, it was like magic observing these artists doing their job during the day before the acts open up at night — so simple, yet beautiful work,” Amr recalls. “Mary Mounib’s dressing room was like a counseling office for Egyptian actresses who used to come and meet her for advice. She was like a mother and matriarch to all women who had troubles and concerns.”
In the 1962 production of the famous play Ela Khama (Minus Five), still shown on Egyptian TV, Mary Mounib played an elderly woman who hires Suleiman (Adel Khairi) without knowing he is looking for treasure hidden inside the walls of her house. “I was the one who was throwing the gold coins from the other side of the wall in the scene where Suleiman was tearing it up to find the treasure. In fact, like the character she played, Mary Mounib revealed in one of her old interviews back then that when she was a teen, she used to keep a moneybox behind a painting on her wall to cheer up her depressed mother and make her believe that God has sent them money to overcome their troubles,” recalls Amr with a big laugh.
Starting from 2007, Amr has spent more time in Egypt reconnecting with his uncles and his cousin Amer, the singer, before the latter passed away in 2011. “My cousin Amer followed the Mounib family legacy of helping the poor and treating people in a good way. And this is what I am trying to do as well, by donating some of the income of my paintings to the victims and the wounded of Tahrir in 2011 and also to the cancer society in Egypt.” et
Works from the Fabric of a Nation Deja Vu Series2. Bottom: The artist’s grandmother Mary Mounib.