Van-Leo: The Reluctant Surrealist

Photo of artist superimposed over him operating a camera
Self-portrait of Van-Leo (1941), from the Van-Leo photo collection, series two, box one. photo / courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, American University in Cairo
View of a gallery space with white walls and black and black and white photos in black frames on the walls.
A view of the Van-Leo exhibition in Bibliowicz Family Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP
A gallery wall with a round window with three small photographs on the wall an outdoor staircase on the right and two figures walking on the other side of the window.
Van-Leo's surrealist self-portraits were experiments in the photographic techniques of his era. William Staffeld / AAP
An oblique angle of a gallery wall with a close up view of a black and white photographic portrait on the right and two other framed pictures in the background.
Van-Leo used costuming and dramatic lighting to accentuate the theatrical. William Staffeld / AAP
Two wooden tables with a display of photographs and articles under glass with reflections of a gallery space in the windows behind.
A display of Van-Leo's photos. In the background is the Bibliowicz Family garden and reflections of the gallery exhibition. William Staffeld / AAP
A black and white portrait of a man wearing an aviators cap and leather jacket under glass with a magazine article in the lower right and reflections.
Van-Leo dressed as an aviator, in one of the photos on the table display. William Staffeld / AAP
Self-portrait of Van-Leo (1941), from the Van-Leo photo collection, series two, box one. photo / courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, American University in Cairo A view of the Van-Leo exhibition in Bibliowicz Family Gallery. William Staffeld / AAP Van-Leo's surrealist self-portraits were experiments in the photographic techniques of his era. William Staffeld / AAP Van-Leo used costuming and dramatic lighting to accentuate the theatrical. William Staffeld / AAP A display of Van-Leo's photos. In the background is the Bibliowicz Family garden and reflections of the gallery exhibition. William Staffeld / AAP Van-Leo dressed as an aviator, in one of the photos on the table display. William Staffeld / AAP

Van-Leo (1920–2002) was a portraitist photographer who ran a successful studio in Cairo during the second half of the 20th century. Born Levon Boyadjian, the artist's admiration for Van Gogh led him to change his name to Van-Leo, a visible affinity in the photographer's work. An artistic highlight of his career was his self-portraits, particularly those produced in the 1940s, which echo Man Ray and Maurice Tabard, and foreshadow Cindy Sherman by 30 years in their ludic approach to genre and role-play. Constantly experimenting, Van-Leo treated his self-portraits as testing grounds for new setups and photographic techniques including solarisation, use of glass shields and filters, sandwiched negatives, multiple exposures, and creative lighting effects.

The selection of self-portraits and documents featured in this exhibition focus on two themes: moments that capture important events and metamorphoses in the artist's life, and Van-Leo's obscure connection to the Egyptian Surrealist movement simultaneously flourishing at the other end of the city. Van-Leo's connection with the Egyptian Surrealist movement, and, particularly, the Art and Liberty Group, seems slight. Van-Leo's involvement in the intellectual discourse of the group is questionable, even doubtful. Nevertheless, Van-Leo produced a portrait of Angelo de Riz taken at the Maison des Artistes where the group was active. Van-Leo also befriended Jacques Ovadia, an involved member in the Art and Liberty Group's circle. Ovadia, a journalist by trade, wrote several articles about Van-Leo's photography, claiming that despite his works' surrealist leanings, Van-Leo himself never believed in Surrealism as either a guiding philosophy or mode of production. Could Van-Leo have been a surrealist by accident, even a reluctant one?

This exhibition marks the first solo exhibition of Van-Leo in the U.S. Other exhibitions include the New Museum, Here and Elsewhere (2014); the Cairo Opera House, When Art Becomes Liberty (2016), which traveled to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea; the Brighton Photo Biennial (2006); and the American University in Cairo, Van-Leo: A Movable Feast (1999). Van-Leo was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 2000 and his archive of photographic prints, negatives, and personal and professional documents are maintained by the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo.

This exhibition is sponsored by the Institute for Comparative Modernities and is accompanied by a catalogue (Africa World Press, 2018) with essays by Ola Seif and Salah Hassan.