The title I Exist (in some way) — an exhibition in Liverpool — came from Syrian photographer Issa Touma, who has also said “they cannot cancel me, so they need to accept me.” Looking at the images in this show, however, one can’t help feeling that it is a record of constraints — and, admittedly, of attempts to overcome them — rather than of freedom.
To illustrate: one of the most celebrated artists in the show is the Palestinian Larissa Sansour. Her contributions come from the Nation Estate series of works, which conceive of a futuristic Palestinian state existing not in historical Palestine, or even in the West Bank and Gaza, but confined to a high-rise building.
One image shows her sitting in the sterile lobby of this imaginary edifice, a directory of the building lists the floors: “-1. Dead Sea; 0. Main Lobby; 1. Souq; 2. Permits and Passports; 3. Heritage Museum; 4. Jerusalem.” The remaining ten floors represent the main cities of the West Bank and Gaza. It is striking that one has to pass through shops, bureaucracies and tidily-assembled “heritage” in a museum before being able to reach the real spaces in which people live and work.
Another picture continues the theme, showing Sansour striding with a suitcase across the pristine, airport-marble floor of a model Manger Square in Bethlehem. Signposts give directions to famous sights such as the Milk Grotto and Nativity Church, but a white, warehouse-like ceiling soars overhead and apocalyptic-looking storm-clouds gather outside the high windows.
This may be a “Palestinian state,” but it is even more plastic and fake than the “Ramallah bubble” generated by external governments and a detached Palestinian Authority in the contemporary West Bank.
In a very different set of images, Jerusalem-based photographer Tanya Habjouqa documents the 2009 Arab Bodybuilding Championships in Amman, Jordan: dubbed the “Gaza Martyrs Tournament” after those killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza earlier that year.
The bulging, artificial-looking flesh painted with glittering dark-brown lotion to accentuate the competitors’ muscles indicates the pursuit of a hyper-masculine body image, but a fainting contestant, overcome by stress, and the wistful look in the men’s eyes suggest a creeping vulnerability.
The Gaza reference in the tournament’s nickname adds to the underlying sense of desperation behind the macho poses.
Images of uprising
Perhaps inevitably for an exhibition of photography by Arab artists, images of the Arab uprisings of recent years loom large. Laura el-Tantawy’s portraits taken in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the months of protest are moving and intimate, explicitly intended to counter the Western media’s depictions of demonstrators as a kind of undifferentiated mass.
The Syrian Nathalie Kardjiane’s video from her family’s home city of Homs, however, is much less optimistic in tone. Returning for her uncle’s funeral in April 2012, Kardjiane records that she and her father had to identify him by his broken finger, his face unrecognizable after he was shot in the head. This grim revelation is juxtaposed with a collection of family snaps showing her uncle as a handsome young man in the 1970s.
Veteran artist Issa Touma’s work, meanwhile, puts Kardjiane’s film into context. Dancing for the Big Father features pictures taken in Syria between 1995 and 2002, showing how images of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez dominated public spaces.
The other major theme which seems to absorb contributors to the exhibition — as already suggested by Habjouqa’s work — is gender. The most striking example is Boushra Almutawakel’s exploration of her own “overlapping viewpoints as a mother, a Muslim, and as a Yemeni woman.”
One set of her photographs depicts her in traditional Yemeni costumes but those usually worn by men, not women. In several, she carries a sword or a janbiya, the curved dagger which is part of male ceremonial attire.
In another series, Mutawakel appears alongside a young girl who carries a doll. In the first image, Mutawakel wears a light headscarf, a small amount of hair showing; as the set proceeds their clothes get darker in color, the coverings more comprehensive, until — by way of an abaya and then a niqab — a cascade of black fabric obscures mother, daughter and doll completely. But even in the last image, which from some angles appears to be simply a black square, a few folds of fabric show that the two figures are still present.
Lebanese-American photographer George Awde also explores his concern with gender, through images of boyhood and men juxtaposed with nature and ruined buildings. As with Habjouqa’s bodybuilders, though, the trappings of machismo — cars and tattoos — are undermined by the vulnerability evinced by men in a world of shifting values, violent political forces and uncertain futures.
Like most groups shows, this exhibition is a mixed bag. Some works, like those of el-Tantawy and Kardjiane, are intimate and personal. Others are less visceral and direct, using photography as a medium to be manipulated and crafted as the basis for discursive art pieces, rather than as an extension of the human eye, out in the world.
Examples include Sansour’s clever generated imagery of her Palestinian dystopia, or Emirati photographer Lamya Gargash’s strangely eerie paired portraits, one depicting the made-up, beautifully dressed individual, and the other the same person with nose, chin or eyes distorted to extreme proportions in a challenge to ideas of beauty and normality.
Given the Orientalist voyeurism which often accompanies Western discussions of Arab gender, identity, agency and transformation, it’s easy to to forget that all our societies are constantly negotiating and rethinking these questions. But this exhibition gives an interesting insight into how some of these conversations are currently being worked through by Arab artists.
All images courtesy of Look/13.
I Exist (in some way) is on display at the Blue Coat Foundation in Liverpool, UK until 14 July.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.