Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Second looks at the Arab world

The Second Biennial of Photography in the Contemporary Arab World has been drawing appreciative audiences in Paris, writes David Tresilian

Second looks at the Arab world
Second looks at the Arab world

The first edition of the Institut du Monde arabe’s biannual showcase of contemporary photography from the Arab world took place two years ago, creating a new international venue for photographers from across the Arab world as well as non-Arab photographers working in Arab countries. 

Two years later, the Biennial’s second edition has been drawing appreciative audiences to the Institut’s glass-and-steel building on the left bank of the Seine in Paris and to the network of other institutions, large and small, associated with the event. As was the case for the Biennial’s first edition (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in January 2016), the second edition has associated the Institut with other venues including the Maison européenne de la photographie on the other side of the Seine, the nearby Cité internationale des arts, and four private galleries.

There is still time to take in this intriguing account of contemporary Arab photography, which, opening in early September, runs until mid-November this year. While the second edition of the Biennial is perhaps smaller, and certainly less comprehensive, than the first, this is an event that has now securely established itself on the cultural calendar. One particular highlight is the exhibition of Algerian photography at the Cité intenationale des arts that brings together works by 20 young Algerian photographers.

In his introduction to the Biennial, curator Gabriel Bauret explains that after the tour d’horizon of the event’s first edition, the intention this time round has been to focus on Tunisia and Algeria. Works by 50 or so photographers are presented, some of them of Arab origin and living and working in the Arab world, some of Arab origin and living and working in Europe or the United States, and some from other backgrounds. While the first Biennial two years ago grouped works by theme or associated them with different headings, this year’s show is more reluctant to supply such categories.

“Without wanting to describe in detail the work of the 50 artists gathered together in this Biennial, and still less to attempt to identify the individual meanings carried by their works, one can at least point to certain links between them as well as to certain common intentions,” Bauret writes. 

“These include crossing territories, making landscapes speak, raising questions about the future of a region, remembering conflicts and bearing witness, reviewing heritage, documenting a society and its culture, understanding specific communities, telling the story of a city, presenting reality, or detaching oneself from it, subverting conventional portraiture, or enlarging its scope, and metaphorically transposing the stars or the Arabic alphabet” into photographic form.

Once again, the intention has been to avoid certain common traps, though in some cases this has also meant acknowledging their continuing attraction, especially for foreign viewers. Western photojournalism was picked out as a source of sometimes damaging stereotypes of the Arab world at the first Biennial two years ago, with the agenda of the international media demanding in some cases little more than images of poverty or violence when representing the region. 

While images of this sort can often be set aside as merely illustrating the needs of the western news cycle, a second source of stereotypes, this time rooted in 19th-century European orientalism, can be almost as damaging. Folkloric representations of the Arab world ultimately emerging from this way of seeing still fill magazines linked to the travel industry today, Bauret wrote in his notes to the first Biennial, clouding, or even possibly preventing, genuine understanding. 

As a result, “the artists whose work is presented in this Biennial,” he writes in his introduction to this year’s catalogue, “stand back, both in terms of distance and of time, from the tumult of current events. They distance themselves [from them], perhaps even ignore them, though this is probably only on the surface. In reality, they are drawn back towards fragments of reality, whether social, cultural or historical, and they make indirect reference to them in a more or less subversive way.”

This emphasis on multiplicity certainly seems to be present among the 20 photographers whose work is on show in the Biennial galleries at the Institut du monde arabe. Perhaps particularly striking here is the work of two young Saudi Arabian photographers, Moath Alofi, born in Medina in 1984, and Tasneem Alsultan, born in 1985 in the United States but living and working in Saudi Arabia. 

While Alofi’s work focuses on fragments of the Saudi landscape, in this case abandoned mosques on the roads outside Medina (once used by travelers), Alsultan turns her lens on contemporary Saudi family life in her brightly coloured series “Saudi Tales of Love”. Her investigations originated in her own self-questioning, she explains in a brief artist’s statement. “Does one have to get married in order to prove one’s love? Does a woman have to have a husband in order to live a meaningful life?”

Elsewhere in the same gallery, Lebanese photographer Rania Matar, now living and working in the United States, uses photography to explore identity issues. Her series “Becoming” presents photographs of young women living in Beirut, sometimes in Palestinian refugee camps. “My aim is to illustrate their sense of identity when they are free to position themselves as they wish in front of the camera… I help them to find their own ways of carrying themselves in order to avoid pre-formatted ‘selfie’ poses,” Matar says.

Tunisian photographer Zied Ben Romadhane, living and working in Tunis, turns again to landscape, this time to the south-west Tunisian mining region of Gafsa. His series of black-and-white photographs of the region and some of its inhabitants is intended to “bear witness to this harsh landscape and the character of its inhabitants.” Landscape, or in this case cityscape, is also the theme of Egyptian photographer Karim El Hayawan’s series “Cairo Cacophony,” brightly coloured close-ups of fragments of urban life apparently taken on the photographer’s guided “Saturday Morning Walks” through the capital.

Especially atmospheric are South Korean photographer Jungjin Lee’s large-format black-and-white images of the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Lee is one of the handful of non-Arab photographers whose images of the Arab world are on show in this year’s Biennial. “I have travelled a lot on the West Bank, not for political reasons but because I like the landscapes of the region,” she says. “I wanted simply to look at the land without prejudice or judgement, seeing it as an olive tree might see it.”

German photographer Stephan Zaubitzer contributes a series of photographs of Lebanese cinemas taken in different parts of the country in 2016. The places are empty and the colours washed out, but “I can see the crowds pressing up against the ticket windows, the ushers tearing the tickets on entry, the audiences excited by the Egyptian films that once dominated Arab screens,” he writes. 

French photographer Scarlett Coten, now working in the United States, presents “Mectoub,” her series of choreographed images of Arab young men. This presents a “feminine point of view on men,” she writes, “a gaze that goes against social structures and codes of behaviour and opens up new perspectives on representation.”

All these images provide much food for thought, but perhaps the most striking innovation in this year’s Biennial is the inclusion of the 20 young Algerian photographers showing their work at the Cité international des arts in a separate exhibition, folded into the larger Biennial, originally shown earlier this year at the Musée nationale d’art moderne et contemporain in Algiers. 

Entitled “Iqbal / Arrivées, pour une nouvelle photographie algérienne” (towards new Algerian photography) and co-produced by the Agence algérienne pour le rayonnement culturel, an Algerian state cultural agency, and the French Institute in Algeria, this shows work not seen outside Algeria before by photographers under 30 years of age who may have had little or no previous international exposure. The subjects are varied, taking in cityscapes, landscapes, social issues, family life and domestic scenes, and the photographs were taken in many parts of this vast and sometimes still little-known country.

Perhaps particularly memorable are Ramzy Bensaadi’s (born 1981) photographs of “rural celebrations in Algeria,” Ramzy Zahoual’s (born 1984) brightly lit nighttime images of wrecked motor vehicles (“handpicked wrecks”), Fethi Sahraoui’s (born 1993) “stadiumphilia” (photographs taken in Algerian football stadiums), Karim-Nazim Tidafi’s “Aperto Libro,” a series of photographs taken on public transport in the capital Algiers, and Yanis Kafiz’s black-and-white portrait studies.

This part of the Biennial in particular is full of interesting and surprising things. Like so much of the work gathered in Paris for this year’s event, it skirts the traps identified by Bauret in his introduction to the catalogue – the stereotypical images that fill the western news media and the 19th-century orientalist gaze – while at the same time “breaking down the boundary between documentary and art photography [and] looking at the present in the light of the past and with sights set on the future.”

Deuxième biennale des photographes du monde arabe contemporain, Institut du monde arabe, Maison européenne de la photographie and other venues, Paris, until 12 November. 

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