Portraits of Post-memory: Van Leo

A photograph stood in the shadow of Van Leo’s miniature faces-of-the-Egyptian-“Hollywood” collage that was showcased in the exhibit “A Rare Look” at the American University in Cairo. Tahrir Square (quite unrecognizable) loomed in a lonely corner of the exhibit. It was only natural that the sea of faces around would steal the limelight because at the time all these photographs were taken, no one would have yet known the importance of Tahrir Square.

Tahrir Square through Van Leo's lens

Tahrir Square through Van Leo’s lens

If the hegemonic determinant of identity is the extent to which one identifies with spaces and places, it is none other than Van Leo that shatters this view. Born in 1921 in the Armenian Turkey, Levon Boyadjian became the “master of Egyptian photography” through his extensive emphasis on portrait photography. Having fled with his family at the age of three from the Armenian genocide, Van Leo found exile in Cairo, in which remnants of his work are still found. Despite having lived the majority of his years in Egypt, Van Leo becomes difficult to read as an artist of exile. One reason for this is the scarcity of commentary on his work. The other is the fact that the majority of his work included numerous portraits of celebrities and others identified as “unknowns” as well as four hundred self-portraits of Van Leo himself. While the orthodox view depicts exiles as reliant on “memory” as a means of identity sustenance, with Van Leo it is possible to explore a rather different concept- that of “postmemory.”

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

“Postmemory”, a term developed by Marianne Hirsch, in her study of the children of Holocaust survivors, denotes the type of memory that is not accessed through remembrance or recollection but through “an imaginative investment and creation.” According to Hirsch, the children of exiles come to accumulate their “memory” based on the narratives they are told by their parents. She states,

“Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.”

Especially relevant to Hirsch’s concept of postmemory is the survival of traumas characteristic of the Holocaust. Although the children of Holocaust survivors know nothing of the experience of the event itself, they build this pseudo-memory in relation to the stories their parents have told them. Reading Hirsch’s Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile, one cannot help but discern a similarity between the exiles of second-generation Holocaust survivors and Van Leo. Despite the fact that he moved out of Armenia at a very young age, Van Leo’s parents had indeed, witnessed the Armenian genocide. As such, evidence of “postmemory” is especially apparent in the case of Van Leo. Yet how can one imagine a memory?

Photography, as a means of remembering and imagining a memory is a particularly relevant tool to Van Leo and Armenian exiles at large. Such importance is known to be dual in nature. On the one hand, it was a mobile skill that exiles could take along where they moved. On the other hand, Armenians in exile have often used the accumulation of photographs as a mechanism through which to “sustain memory and testimony to collective pasts.” As such, family portraits of Armenian families for example, have acted as important symbols in the memory of Armenian exiles since they are, in Hirsch’s words, “defined by their context as much as their content.” This notion holds true for a vast amount of Armenian exiles except Van Leo, whose decision to refrain from photographing just Armenians greatly distorts the meaning of photography to exile.

Since his photography was comprised of portraits of multinational subjects rather than pictures of his Armenian family or other Armenians living in Egypt, Van Leo greatly distorts mainstream Armenian ties to photography. While his work comes to disclaim his position within the orthodox view of Armenian exiles, Van Leo provides leaves limited yet fruitful indications of his placement as an artist of exile. Indeed, his extensive self-portraiture serves as a reminder that the Armenian Van Leo photographed and that was worthy of study was himself.

An important question to raise therefore, is the significance of portrait photography and specifically of self-portraiture. Portraits by their very nature, invite immense interest as the viewer attempts to make sense of a mere face standing before them. Glenn Jordan emphasizes this particular nature of portraiture by stating that,

“We, the ordinary viewers, invariably seek to read faces and to create narratives about the lives of those whose expressions we feel we have deciphered. We feel that, by virtue of our status as fellow human beings, we can discern or deduce what emotions, attitudes and experience lie behind or beneath photographed facial expressions.”

Singer and actress Dalida

Singer and actress Dalida

On a note more specific to exilic experience, Jordan adds that portraiture may in fact, be an expression of oral history. Like Hirsch, his project was undertaken under the assumption that photography was important for the exiled artist as a mechanism of sustaining memory. Indeed, his article An African Presence in Europe is a project that attempts to combine photography and oral history in reference to Somali exiles in Europe. Jordan’s concept, applied to Van Leo, makes for a compelling analysis that discerns an oral history quite unlike the one assumed by Jordan and Hirsch.

The “oral history” to which Jordan and Hirsch make reference involves a narration of the experience of exile through photographing exiled subjects. A necessary element of this narrative is the establishment of the nature of the “history” being narrated through the photograph. In Jordan and Hirsch’s projects, the history being narrated is clearly the history of the exiles in their homeland. In Van Leo’s case, the history he narrates through his photography is that of Egypt, albeit a history that is only discernable through his eyes as an Armenian exile.

A snapshot of Van Leo’s Egypt is essential in understanding the type of history his photography narrated. In a preface to his interview with Van Leo, Akram Zaatari captures the image of Van Leo’s Egypt,

“Women threw off the veil, artists and intellectuals congregated in cafes. Cairo was a profoundly multi- cultural society, and it was against that multiculturalism that the Arab nationalism of the 1940s and I950s defined itself.”

Actress Mervat Amin

Actress Mervat Amin

It becomes clear from Zaatari’s quote above that the Egypt Van Leo had lived in was profoundly different from the Egypt we know today. Indeed he explains that the Egypt that emerged from the 1952 revolution is “self-consciously Arab.” One may thus infer that the Egypt Van Leo saw was a multicultural rather than a “national” community, much unlike the Egypt that lived after the departure of its many foreigners and the emergence of a narrative that established the notion of “being Egyptian.” Indeed, in Akram Zaatari’s interview Van Leo states that,

“Egypt has three estates: the First Egyptians, the Arab Muslims who dominate politics and society; the Second Egyptians, the Copts, whose Christian religion predates the arrival of Islam: and the third Egyptians, a multinational hodgepodge that includes Armenians like him.”

While Van Leo narrated an Egypt that was defined by multicultural faces and movie stars, he established himself in such a context, as one of Egypt’s third citizens. One can comfortably accommodate such a view given the fluidity of “citizenship” in Van Leo’s Egypt.

Van Leo has allegedly taken over 400 self-portraits, playing different personae including a pilot, a serial killer and a starlet. In Zaatari’s interview, Van Leo claimed he was simply experimenting. Yet the profound interest he took in self-photography and his self-identification as Egypt’s “Third Citizen” raise questions about the relationship between self-portraiture and identity. It is none other than the renowned German philosopher Theodor Adorno that provides great insights about such a relationship.



In A Portrait of Non-Identity, Gerhard Richter explores the one self-portrait Adorno had taken before his death. He builds on a critical statement made by Ronald Barthes who in turn explains that Adorno’s photograph is “the advent of…(the self) as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.” The notion of separating identity from consciousness has deep implications regarding self-portraiture of the exiled artist, indeed because Adorno was also an exile in the United States. It is highly plausible that by taking so many self-portraits, Van Leo was also engaged in the process of dissociating consciousness from identity, in a manner that would allow him to reconcile his position as a third citizen of Egypt. By picturing himself as a pilot or a serial killer, in an Egypt that was not so rigidly defined by certain notions of “Egyptianness” Van Leo has been able to create a category of existence within the country of his exile that included his belonging as well as his exclusion.

And that is the utmost beauty of Van Leo’s photographs. They may be seen as little more than a collage of handsome faces. Yet in their entirety, they do in fact represent a place, an Egypt that today’s viewers have almost no knowledge of- an Egypt that is now too late to attempt to remember because it has not existed for today’s Egyptians.

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actor Roshdy Abaza

Actor Roshdy Abaza

An Egypt too late for memory.