My visit to Peckham’s Seen Fifteen space was accidentally very timely; at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week I found myself unexpectedly enveloped in a highly personal, engaging exhibition filled with photography and installation by Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy. It is immediately evident that the artist has created a body of work after much consideration, with a fulfilled ambition of turning personal anxieties or social isolation into creative output.
Clearly, the exhibition is to be experienced as a whole, as opposed to a sum of components, as El-Tantawy has not named individual artworks, instead referring to the exhibition’s title throughout. From the moment of entry, the viewer is retreats into a real personal space, and we feel that the show is curated with real heart and care, which is confirmed further with the inclusion of a bed onto which a filmic work is being projected.
The artist repeatedly refers to her practice as unpacking her own mixed feelings towards the notion of ‘home’, and being presented with a bed with wrinkled covers to imply its use does this directly; this form of anxiety is mixed with a general social anxiety thanks to the words printed on the duvet: “I am lonely sounds like the most sinful confession” which is particularly pertinent in Seen Fifteen’s urban environment, as it is well recorded that such a thriving, bustling city can exacerbate feelings of isolation.
The artist has successfully transferred her feelings through her craft; the weight and suspense in each photograph is arresting and symbolism of entrapment can be identified throughout, such as through the motif of the window, which is repeated in the show several times.
One particular photograph of deep blackness framing the shadow of a window and a side profile is simultaneously both stunning and claustrophobic. Adding another level of intrigue is the space itself; although part of the Bussey Building in Peckham, with units packed closely together, Seen Fifteen’s interior is wide open, white and airy, providing a contrast to the solitary, dark, anonymous images on the walls, thus magnifying the potency of the latter.
‘Beyond Here is Nothing’ is truly fascinating in that El-Tantawy has managed to translate feelings of empty sadness into photography that is rich and full, in a way that will be the envy of many artists and photographers; blurred visions and traffic lights blending into painting-style dream worlds are prominent and poignant.
Ambiguous visuals also add to the narrative of confusion and deep-rooted anxiety about place and future prospects, to which many of the show’s visitors will be able to relate. In a location as diverse as Peckham, it truly is important to engage with as wide an audience as possible, and El-Tantawy and Seen Fifteen must be congratulated for this.