A look at the Arab world in Paris Biennale of Photographers of the Contemporary Arab World

David Tresilian , Saturday 19 Oct 2019

The Third Biennale of Photographers of the Contemporary Arab World has been drawing appreciative audiences to the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris

Clashing Realities by Lamia Maria Abillama

After two successful earlier outings in 2015 and 2017, the third Biennale of Photographers of the Contemporary Arab World opened at the Institut du Monde arabe and other venues in Paris in September. This year’s edition, continuing a tradition established in earlier years, brings together work by photographers based in the Arab world or outside of it and of Arab and other origins. Generous criteria have been used in selecting the work displayed, and there is a focus on new photography from Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco.

Lebanon has been given pride of place in this year’s Biennale, with the Institut du Monde arabe’s basement exhibition spaces being given over to selected works by some two dozen photographers working inside and outside the country in a show entitled Liban, réalités et fictions (Lebanon – Reality and Fiction). The first part of the exhibition is documentary in character and records the continuing scars of the civil war that raged in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. The second part, less constrained by the need to bear witness to the aftermath of the war, brings together the work of photographers more concerned to cross the border into fiction.

While the photographers contributing work to the first part of the exhibition have wanted to explore the geography and urban and rural landscapes of Lebanon today, touching on themes such as history, the necessity of memory, the relations between the country’s different religious communities, and the often harsh facts of voluntary or involuntary exile, those in the second part have wanted to “escape from the constraints of realism.” According to Biennale curators Gabriel Bauret and Hanna Boghanim, they “present the viewer with other landscapes, whether dreamed of or invented, and expressing the quest for a Lebanon elsewhere and a desire for evasion.”

The exhibition begins with a film, Beyrouth centre-ville, commissioned in 1991 by the Fondation Hariri and documenting the work of mostly non-Lebanese photographers invited to Beirut in the immediate aftermath of the war with a view to recording the destruction. The ruined streets and buildings of the Lebanese capital presented here, in a film edited by Italian filmmaker Tanino Musso, appear almost entirely emptied of their inhabitants, with grass growing up through shattered streets, public spaces pitted by what seem to be artillery craters, and the walls of buildings scarred by gunfire and windows and doors blown out of looted apartments.

Each photographer in the selection that follows has contributed half a dozen or so works in different formats, from large and glossy colour prints to sometimes tiny black-and-white images. Each has accompanied the work with a framing artist’s statement, presented in French with English translation, suggesting ways of understanding the images. The Lebanese-Brazilian photographer Lamia Maria Abillama, born in Lebanon and trained in New York, has contributed a series entitled “Clashing Realities,” for example, in which she has invited Lebanese women from different walks of life to pose in military uniforms.

“Lebanon has been the arena of incessant conflict and confrontation since 1975… in asking a group of Lebanese women to put on combat uniforms as a symbol of the violence that has so affected their lives, my aim has been to indicate the extent to which they have been impacted by the decades of conflict,” she explains.

A similar concern with the continuing impacts of the war is found in the work of Lebanese photographer Dalia Khamissy. “I was only seven years old when my father was kidnapped in 1981,” she explains in the statement accompanying her colour series entitled the “Missing of Lebanon”. Fortunately, “he was released three days later… but it was only some years later that I realised that I had been one of the lucky ones. Some 17,000 people are still officially registered as missing in Lebanon, and their families are still living in hope that someday they will return.” The handful of images Khamissy has contributed to the exhibition show often older women clutching photographs of long-lost sons or rooms or other spaces kept as they were on the day of their owners’ disappearance.

Other photographers have contributed images of Lebanese cityscapes, suggesting the memories of war that still hang over them. The two dozen images that make up Lithuanian photographer Ieva Saudargaite Douaihi’s series “Dernière Ville” (Last City) are part of a “critical analysis of Beirut today” that recalls “contemporary technologies of drones, scanners, and surveillance systems.” The images included in the series “Antiparadise, a Lebanese Notebook” by Greek photographer Demetris Koilalous are part of the “discovery of a strange country” and a way of grasping the atmosphere of “chaos and anomie that reigns in contemporary Lebanon.”

Lebanese photographer Vicky Mokbel’s series “EDL: On-Off / In-Out” consists of photographs, inside and outside, close up and from a distance, of the imposing and semi-abandoned headquarters of the Electricité du Liban (EDL) company in Beirut. Built in the early 1970s and housing both offices and apartments, the building today is in an advanced state of decay. “I have been obsessed with this building in my work,” Mokbel explains in her accompanying artist’s statement, since “in itself it tells the story of the country.”

The “Nightshift” series by Lebanese photographer Myriam Boulos, a collection of large format black-and-white prints documenting the Beirut underground party scene, seems similarly affected by memories of war. Perhaps the investment in hedonism that these images betray has something to do with a rejection of the sometimes harsh injunctions of Lebanese society and a reluctance to confront or work through the full horrors of the war.

The series “particularly investigates the position of young women in Lebanese society,” Boulos says. “The industrial hangars and abandoned factories” used as venues for Beirut’s nightlife “are places of resistance to the bling-bling of Lebanese life and the destination point of my own personal questioning.”

EGYPT AND MOROCCO: As was the case in earlier iterations, the third Biennale presses other nearby venues into service, including the Cité internationale des arts and Maison européenne de la photographie across the Seine from the Institut du monde arabe and various private galleries.

The Cité internationale des arts has been hosting the other highlight of this year’s Biennale in an exhibition of work by 16 young Egyptian photographers, some of them exhibiting their work for the first time outside Egypt. It has been co-organised with the Institut français d’Egypte in Cairo. While some visitors may feel that these young photographers, seven women and nine men and all under the age of 30, have drawn the short straw in terms of venue, with the Cité’s temporary exhibition spaces resembling a collection of concrete stairwells, this does not detract from the impact made by their joint show entitled Hakawi or “narratives of contemporary Egypt”.

The Cité exhibition spaces have natural light, however, and it is a pity they could not have been secured for longer as this part of the Biennale closed on 28 September. The work is broadly documentary in character, though transformed and invested with sometimes joyful and sometimes bleak significance by the photographer’s gaze. More often feelings are somewhere in between, with the camera’s knack of capturing a fleeting image or settling attention on a passing detail being exploited to the full.

Photographer Roger Anis has captured summer days on the “Shaabi Beaches” of Ras Elbarr, Gamala, and Baltim in his series, bringing back the fun of day excursions in 2017 and 2018, while Mohamed Anwar in his “Nightwalkers” series of 2019 has caught people walking at night in front of an orange-coloured building, their postures indicating a range of possible intentions – hurrying to get home, idly dawdling, end-of-day release from work, or heading out for an evening on the town.

Sometimes there is narrative involved, as in Fathi Hawas’s “Taste of Concrete Photo Diary” recording moves from Kafr al-Dawa in the Nile Delta to Alexandria and then to Cairo, and sometimes there is careful study of a serial phenomenon, such as in Mai al-Shazly’s “Public Performance,” photographs of customised doors inside apartment buildings, or in Karim al-Hayawan’s black-and-white studies of graffiti found on high-end construction sites in “What if Art is Elsewhere” from 2018-2019.

Sometimes there is a desire to document a particular location, such as in Fatma Fahmy’s “Waltz with the Trams,” a series taken on the tramway, or in Mohamed Mahdy’s “Moondust,” a series taken in the Wadi al-Qamar district of Alexandria where streets and buildings are covered with dust from a nearby cement works, or in Amina Kadous’s “Memory Cracks,” studies of the thoroughfares between family homes in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra and Cairo. Sometimes the focus is on a particular social issue as in Fares Zaitoon’s “I found Home” thematising addict rehabilitation, Eman Helal’s “Just Stop” bearing witness to violence against women, and Heba Khamis’s “Transit Bodies” documenting trans-identities and gender-transitioning.

All this makes for an unusually rewarding show, and few visitors will leave without wanting heartily to thank curators Bruno Boudjelal and Diane Augier for selecting the 16 young photographers represented here from the 500 portfolios they received. “Despite an environment that does not always encourage documentary photography, these young photographers show us what is possible in work of the highest quality,” they write.

The last body of work on show at this year’s Biennale is by British-Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj and is at the Maison européenne de la photographie. Hajjaj’s work has been heavily advertised, and he has been described as the “Andy Warhol of Morocco.”

His work, like Warhol’s, is full of gestures towards consumer and celebrity culture, reproducing it and following its codes. However, it quickly tires – the repetition may be the point – and intentionally or not the show ends in an expensive gift shop. This exhibition, which perhaps ironically employs the aesthetics of the fashion show, sits oddly with the rest of the Biennale, whose aesthetics are drawn from traditions of documentary realism.

The atmosphere is one of luxury and excess, and Hajjaj brings a repertoire of kitsch and camp to bear, as in the work of Warhol.

Troisième Biennale des photographes du monde arabe contemporain, various venues in Paris from 11 September


 *A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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