Showing in New York City at the Aperture Foundation, the exhibition titled Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World is “the largest collection of Arab photographs that has ever been exhibited in the United States,” says Diane Edkins, Aperture’s Director of Exhibitions.
Organised by the Noordlicht Foto Festival, Nazar (the Arabic word meaning seeing or insight), is “a way to see at first hand not only the kind of imagery that contemporary and established Arab artists are creating in regards to their own culture, but also a way to advance photography and promote dialogue with many different audiences,” Edkins told Aljazeera.net.
The show is as complex and fascinating as the region it covers. Through the lens, the photographs reveal the small stories behind the ‘breaking news’ in an area that comprises 22 countries that share Arabic as a common language.
The pictures are a form of storytelling that reflect on everything from the political to the documentaries to portraits, contrasting urban landscapes and cityscapes and shedding light on the traditional yet contradictory life of the Middle East.
Benno Thieme, a German investment banker visiting New York, says the images show the effects of a region in turmoil from a most human perspective: “I am surprised by the familiarity of the emotions captured by the lens. Instead of strange people in a far away land, I found familiar faces and feelings.”
The chance to showcase the works of Arab talent “casts a welcome light on the realities of the Arab World,” said Kinda Younes, a venture capitalist in New York.
Farida Hamak’s pictures revealed
“The photos are well-composed, which is all the more impressive given that a number of them were taken in chaotic circumstances.”
The chaos of war is what photographer Farida Hamak’s photo essay – Traces of War – brings home. Tracing the desperate plight of a forgotten Shia community living in the dilapidated Dahesh Palace, her photographs focus on human despair.
In one of the photographs “Fatma in her room with Oum Khalil” the desperation is emphasized in a quotation: “Here we squat for free. We laugh on the outside but we are very tired on the inside.”
Destruction versus reconstruction
Greta Torossian also focuses on the effects of war and the consequent world of destruction and reconstruction in Real Visions, a series of images of Beirut in 1999. Her images show how often the war-ravaged ruins are swallowed up in modern urban planning and how a city gets a new personality through the merging of the past and present.
“In these things,” she says “the soul, the personality of a city can be found.”
The hope revealed in Torossian’s images of reconstruction is undermined in Rawi Hage’s Developing and the Underdeveloped. Hage who left Lebanon at a very young age and currently lives in Canada, believes little has changed in Lebanon since the French Mandate in 1920.
The colonial elite have been replaced by a national elite. He converted his critique into a series of photographs in which he had a number of wealthy Lebanese families pose with their household employees to underline existing class differences.
“The one becomes an element in the household of the other – a symbol of stature, cleanliness and beauty,” he says.
Palestinian photojournalist, Ahmed Jadallah displays a far more overt political tone. He has taken thousands of pictures of life in the Gaza Strip and sees it as his mission to have the world “share the despair of the Palestinian people”.
Essaydi depicts the complexity
His powerful colour photographs Home Base Gaza capture incredibly tender, painful, violent moments of bereaved children and women, wounded men and dead people. Jadallah, who nearly lost his legs from a tank shell, won in 2003 first prize in the Daily news category of World Press Photo.
In Lalla Essaydi’s strikingly large scale prints collectively titled Converging Territories, seven women fill the frame entirely. The women depicted in the photographs become pages and chapters in Essaydi’s story.
They mark a grinding rebellion. Essaydi uses henna in calligraphic writing, marking the subject’s body with this artform that is usually inaccessible to women.
Arab female identity
The photographs were taken over a four-year period in the house where women from her family were sometimes locked up for weeks if they had disobeyed or stepped outside the rules of their culture.
“Through my photographs, I am able to suggest the complexity of Arab female identity, as I have known it, and the tension between hierarchy and fluidity that are at the heart of Arab culture,” she says.
The photographs highlight the emotive and political flux of a region in turmoil.
For real estate broke Leila Abbas, it is the depiction of women that reverberates the most.”The war will be over one day and the women will be able to raise their voices and veils,” she says.
“For me, the photographs reveal a new side to life in the Middle East, social realities that I did not know about. All I know about the area is what I see on the news. It’s enlightening,” says one visitor at the gallery who did not wish to give her name.
Nazar: Photographs of the Arab World is currently showing until 3 November at Aperture’s Gallery in Chelsea, New York City.