Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Photographing the Arab world

A new biannual event is bringing together photographers from across the Arab world, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Farah Al-Qasimi
Farah Al-Qasimi
Al-Ahram Weekly

The first edition of the Institut du Monde arabe’s new biannual showcase of the best contemporary photography from the Arab world opened on 11 November, its aim being to create a regular international venue open both to photographers from across the Arab world and to non-Arab photographers working in Arab countries.

The new Biennale’s opening exhibition, bringing together 50 photographers from perhaps a dozen different countries and distributed across eight venues in the heart of Paris, has been organised jointly by the Institut du Monde arabe and the nearby Maison européenne de la photographie with the cooperation of four private galleries. It presents perspectives from within the Arab world, as well as the perspectives of foreign photographers. The emphasis is on a diversity of approaches, formats and subjects, from documentary photography to more obviously artistic works.

Gabriel Bauret, the Biennale’s curator, explains in the catalogue accompanying the first edition that such diversity has until recently been in short supply. While photography took off early in the Arab countries, with chiefly European photographers setting up studios in cities such as Cairo, Damascus and Beirut from the middle decades of the 19th century onwards, this heritage has in many cases imposed its own sometimes still-powerful agenda.

These early photographers specialised in the kinds of images made famous by the 19th-century orientalist painters, and when they were not photographing ruined buildings or archaeological sites they were producing images of human subjects reduced, in many cases, to background or decorative elements.

“Such representations, often simply folklore, became the established way of seeing the Arab world and they continue to affect the way many Arab countries are seen today,” Bauret comments. “Many photographers working for magazines linked to the tourism industry still present the Arab world in a picturesque way, one that has its origin in painting and in subjects chosen mainly for their aesthetic qualities.”

Arab photographers have worked to present the Arab world differently over recent decades, breaking such predominantly picturesque ways of seeing, but they have not necessarily succeeded in establishing their versions of Arab life among international audiences. “When one goes through works on the history of photojournalism, or those bringing together the winners of the World Press Photo competition since 1955, one finds almost no Arab photographers,” Bauret adds, despite the growing international attention given to the Arab world.

“Most of the winners have come from Western Europe or the United States, since these host the world’s major press and photographic agencies. It was only in the 1990s that a photographer from the Arab world, [the Algerian] Hocine Zaourar, joined the list of winners identified by World Press Photo,” he says.

However, photojournalism has dangers of its own. Whatever the national origin of the photographer, Arab or non-Arab, the agenda of the international media tends to be the same, determining the kinds of images that are circulated. The Arab Spring Revolutions led to an explosion in Arab photojournalism, giving new opportunities to Arab photographers and making images from the Arab world more familiar to international audiences. However, all too often this “simply produced stereotypical images for the front pages of the newspapers” and concentrated on scenes of urban violence.

Such work did not seek to represent the Arab world in its full multiplicity or move beyond established modes of representation, Bauret says. Through the work of the photographers presented in the Biennale, the public will be able to see the true variety of the contemporary Arab world and break with established ways of seeing. The exhibition is a “way of responding to an urgent need and one that is more pressing today than it has ever been – to combat received ideas about the Arab world and to break down various clichés.”

DIVERSE AIMS: The Biennale’s emphasis on diversity has given a free hand to the photographers who have been included, allowing them to present their own work in their own words if they so choose and without explicit curatorial control.

Wall texts in the exhibition often consist of commentary from the photographers themselves, highlighting individual aims rather than larger patterns in the works on show. According to Bauret, this individual emphasis also allows visitors to draw their own conclusions about the forms of photography undertaken in the Arab world today and the varied interests of Arab photographers.

The catalogue attempts to pull the works together, arranging them under the four broad themes of landscapes, interior worlds, cultures and identities and spring, the latter category mostly containing images taken in the wake of the Arab Spring Revolutions. But a review of the works each category contains is enough to indicate how broadly it has been interpreted. There is no sense here that the theme is simply being illustrated by the photographer concerned.

The young Franco-Egyptian photographer Myriam Abdelaziz is one of the group of 29 photographers exhibiting in the temporary exhibition spaces at the Institut du monde arabe, the largest venue in the Biennale. Her work, a series called “Children of Minya”, is of child labourers in the Upper Egyptian governorate’s quarries, the children, like the landscape, being covered in layers of white dust.

Also at the Institut are photographers who have interpreted the theme of landscapes in very different terms. Moroccan photographer Khalil Nemmaoui has turned his back on his country’s well-known cityscapes, the stuff of innumerable tourist magazines, to produce images of fields and trees, most of them without human subjects. Lebanese photographer Joe Kesrouani, born within a few years of Nemmaoui in 1968, has produced a series he calls “Beirut Walls”, being panoramic images of the Beirut suburbs. Emirati photographer Farah al-Qasimi has done something similar with her native Dubai, her series, entitled “The Sinking World”, recording some of the enormous changes that have taken place in the city in recent years and their sometimes unintended consequences.

Gathered under the same theme are works by young Palestinian photographers Mohamed Abusal and Yazan Khalili. Abusal, living and working in Gaza, has produced a series he calls “Shambar” illustrating the lengths Gazan families have had to go to in order to get round the area’s frequent blackouts. A shambar is a type of cheap gas-lamp, useful during power cuts and for outdoor events. Abusal has photographed nighttime venues lit by shambars or similar forms of ad hoc lighting, creating what he says is “a strange atmosphere and a range of unexpected colours accompanied by the smell of burning gas or electrical generators.” Khalili, also photographing nighttime scenes, has produced a series called “Landscape of Darkness” in which familiar landscapes, bathed in shadow, become looming and threatening.

Among the non-Arab photographers working on landscape themes are French photographer Stéphane Couturier and the Franco-Italian couple Andrea and Magda, both at the Maison européenne de la photographie, where the work of six photographers is on show. Couturier, older than most of the other photographers in the Biennale, has produced a series on the Climat de France estate in Algiers, designed by French architect Fernand Pouillon and built in the 1950s during the final years of the French presence in the country.

This estate, designed to house some 50,000 residents, is typical of the large-scale housing schemes of the time, among them the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s famous Cité radieuse in the southern French city of Marseille, or Pouillon’s own redevelopment of the Panier district of the same city. Judging from these photographs the Climat de France estate has not been well-maintained.

Andrea and Magda have produced a series called “Sinai Park” depicting tourist developments in or near the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. This is an area that has flourished as a result of growing tourism, but that has also suffered first because of the political fall-out from the Egyptian revolutions and then because of the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai in October last year.

CULTURES AND INTERNAL WORLDS: Cultures and identities, the Biennale’s third theme, is a capacious category, and the photographers have accordingly interpreted it in a wide variety of different ways.
Lebanese photographer George Awde, exhibiting at the Institut du monde arabe, has produced a series called “Fragile States” illustrating the male body and questioning traditional ideas of masculinity in parts of the Arab world. Daoud Aoulad-Syad, of older generation and considered to be the “father of contemporary Moroccan photography,” exhibiting at the Maison européenne de la photographie, has contributed a “Retrospective” of Moroccan street scenes. The young Egyptian photographer Wafaa Samir has created a series called Ramadan illustrating life in the Holy Month in an original fashion. One of the photographs from her series has been used for the publicity material for the Biennale as a whole.

Elsewhere, the Franco-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui has contributed a particularly striking series called “Moroccans”, being large-scale photographs, taken in a mobile studio, of Moroccan men and women of different ages, from different walks of life, and living in different parts of the country. Apparently, Alaoui was inspired by the American photographers Robert Frank and Richard Avedon (in their series “The Americans” and “In the American West”, respectively) and wanted to do something similar by recording individuals in Morocco.

The Egyptian photographer Nabil Boutros has gone further than others in suggesting something of the mutability or instability of identities by himself appearing in a variety of different disguises in his photographs. His series, called “Egyptians, or Clothes make the Man”, shows Boutros as “Egyptian M”, “Egyptian N”, “Egyptian O”, Egyptian Z” and others, appearing successively as perhaps an urban professional, a Coptic monk and a farmer. “Clothes are a way of indicating identity to other people,” Boutros says. “But appearances are becoming less and less relatable to reality, raising the question of how far we should trust them.”

Other photographers included in this section produce self-portraits and suggest that such images may not always represent stable identities. Anglo-Tunisian photographer Arthur Souhed Nemlaghi, exhibiting at the Galerie Basia Embiricos, one of the four private galleries participating in the Biennale, has produced a series of self-portraits that “put in parentheses the traditional values associated with art, such as the visible, the beautiful, and social recognition.”

Slightly easier to understand are the self-portraits produced by the young Moroccan photographers Ihsane Chetuan and Safaa Mazirh, in residence at the nearby Cité internationale des arts, who have produced works drawing attention to the “theatre of the real” (Mazirh) or the body as a kind of collage. “In my work I have created completely virtual, non-existent beings for whom no part of the face is equal to or like another,” Chetuan says of her series “Transfiguration”.

Of the photographs grouped within the theme of internal worlds, perhaps the most striking are those produced by Saudi photographer Emy Kat, Emirati photographer Lamya Gargash and Italian photographer Giulio Rimondi. Kat, exhibiting at the Institut du monde arabe, has produced a series called “The Everlasting Now” in which she aims to “capture the beauty of a heritage that is slowly disappearing.” Through presenting images of decaying buildings she hopes to “question what is happening to our society such that we can neglect and destroy so much beauty.”

Gargash, also at the Institut, has contributed a series called “Majlis” of the reception rooms of Emirati houses, all of them empty and “raising the question of existence and identity.” Rimondi has documented some of the effects of the Syrian conflict in his series entitled “Provisional Interiors”. These show ad hoc living spaces built by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, some of them wooden cabins, others rooms in larger buildings, but all of them marked by the poor living conditions of Syrian refugees who the time are unable to return to their country.

Première biennale des photographes du monde arabe contemporain, Institut du monde arabe, Maison européenne de la photographie and other venues, Paris, until 17 January.

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