Post-card from Abu Dhabi: Photography at the Arab Crossroads

Shelley Rice, "View from the Intercontinental"

On the 13th of May, a group of about twenty photography curators, critics, artists and historians from the Middle East, the United States and Europe met in Abu Dhabi at the Intercontinental Hotel for the first “Photography at the Arab Crossroads” colloquium. Sponsored by New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus and the Arab Image Foundation based in Beirut, the conference was convened by Shamoon Zamir (NYU Abu Dhabi) and Issam Nassar (Illinois State University). In the introduction circulated to participants, Zamir and Nassar wrote that the “colloquium is conceived as the first of what we hope will become a series of colloquia or workshops focused on the histories and forms of photography from the Arab world. While the primary focus will be on photography produced within the Arab world, the region is also conceived broadly and fluidly and is imagined as a cultural crossroads…The broad goal of the workshops is to establish a network of scholars and institutional partnerships that will enable the development of an ongoing plan of research and publication aimed at addressing both historical and theoretical gaps in our understanding of photography from and about the Arab world.”

Shelley Rice, "The Arab Photography Colloquium, with : Shamoon Zamir (front) and Zeina Arida (behind him)"

Toward this end,  Zamir, Nassar and Zeina Arida (Director of the Arab Image Foundation) invited a series of speakers and guests that included historians like Stephen Sheehi, editors and archivists Karen Davis and Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, artists such as  Yasser Alwan and Tarek Al Ghoussein, curators Catherine David and Martha Weiss and NYU Faculty like myself, Fred Ritchin and filmmaker/photographer Joanne Savio. Two solid days were spent in conversation; there was only a little time to see Saadiyat Island (future home of the Abu Dhabi Louvre and Guggenheim Museums as well as the NYU Abu Dhabi campus), the Emirates Palace Hotel (where one can buy gold from a vending machine) and of course the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (which holds up to 40,000 people).  Zamir ran a tight ship, and insisted that the event present an overview of the issues facing people involved in exploring this increasingly important subject. Nassar and Sheehi gave papers on the history and theory of photography in the region, while Arida, Mark Westmoreland and others described various aspects of the AIF and MEPPI (the Middle East Photography Preservation Institute). The background from the first day set the stage for artist presentations by Alwan, Susan Meiselas and Nadia Benchallal on the second day, as well as curatorial explanations of upcoming exhibitions (Weiss, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and general issues involved in researching, writing about and exhibiting this material and all “off center modernities” (David). Between presentations, there was much lively dialogue and dissension, which was fascinating due to the varied backgrounds, situations and professions of the participants.

Nadia Benchallal : « Women in Algiers ", Algeria 1994, from the Series « Sisters », Work in progress, © Nadia Benchallal

I think everyone present agreed that the high point was precisely this conviviality and debate. All of us were all grateful for the chance to meet (or re-encounter) so many knowledgeable people from so many different countries, and to analyze these timely concerns from such varied points of view – either during the open forums or later among ourselves over coffee or meals. The politically correct, the essentialist, the isolationist and the cosmopolitan: all of these types of remarks surfaced during the lively discussions, and once on the table they could be examined, rejected, accepted or morphed into premises and possibilities more agreeable to everyone. The most heated debates, of course, were over the definition of an “Arab” photographer in the 21st century: is this someone who was born and remains within the region, or is such a definition too restrictive? (We noticed, of course, that if we upheld this restriction none of the artists – in fact almost none of the speakers – who had presented work at the conference could be invited back to speak or to publish their work in any resulting books!) Does the idea of a cultural crossroads mandate an open attitude toward those born in the Middle East who left for long or short periods of time (like Yasser Alwan or Walid Raad, as well as Issam Nassar himself), those from other countries or cultures who’ve done significant work in the region (like Susan Meiselas) or those born elsewhere because their parents emigrated, but whose work is about retracing their heritage within the Arab world (Nadia Benchallal, born of Algerian parents in France)? Evidently, this first colloquium was convened with an open attitude toward the mobility of 21st century life, and after much heated discussion the group voted to leave the initial definition in place for the next workshop.

Yasser Alwan : "Amm Abdu", Tanneries, Cairo, 1999, © Yasser Alwan

Similarly, Zamir posed questions about the organization of subsequent colloquia and books. How does one choose categories for contemporary research that are not based on previous Orientalist or Western centered attitudes? This was perhaps the most critically delicate issue, since of course “Calls for Papers” have a way of pushing research or artistic expression in certain pre-determined directions. The decision was made to leave the categories very general — Art Photography, Documentary, Vernacular Imagery and Collections – in the hope that these very wide fields can be filled up with many different and locally nuanced points of view, types of research, art and curatorial projects that provide multifaceted perspectives on these essentially universal aspects of the photographic medium. After two days, we left the conference – exhausted, but with a plan – feeling like something important had occurred in Abu Dhabi, and knowing that all of us were grateful to have taken part in laying the foundations of a project that will change the visual landscape of the globe yet again.

© Shelley Rice, 2012


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