FotoFest 2014 Biennial introduces leading Middle Eastern artists to the US

FotoFest 2014 opens with the largest offering of Arab artists to be shown in the United States in twenty years. 

Houston’s FotoFest Biennial launched its 2014 edition with 48 Arab artists, the first time in two decades that an exhibition of such scope has focused on artists from the Middle East and North Africa. Art Radar interviewed Co-founder Wendy Watriss and Senior Curator Karin Adrian von Roques to find out more about the Biennial and why you should visit Houston’s FotoFest this spring.

Youssef Nabil, 'Self-portrait', (Essaouira), 2011, hand coloured gelatin silver print 26 x 39 cm. Image courtesy the Artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery.

Youssef Nabil, ‘Self-portrait’, (Essaouira), 2011, hand coloured gelatin silver print 26 x 39 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery.

FotoFest 2014 Biennial, this year in its 15th edition, is an event dedicated to the exchange of ideas through photography. From its base in Houston, Texas, the biennial hosts live events, talks, exhibitions and collateral projects. This year, the focus is on contemporary video, photography and multimedia art from the Middle East, with almost fifty of the region’s artists taking part in the event.

To find out more about the history behind the contemporary art scene in the Middle East and the importance of bringing the region’s artists to America, Art Radar spoke with FotoFest Co-founder Wendy Watriss and the Biennial’s Senior Curator, Karin Adrian von Roques.

Wendy Watriss, Co-founder of FotoFest Biennial

Do you feel that as a medium photography has something to offer that other media do not?

Photography has one very important thing [that other media do not]. It has to do with its history and the nature of it being perceived of as a mechanical process. The history is that there has been the illusion that photography was a direct window on reality and a direct conduit to what you actually see — what passes before your eyes. Therefore it is a reflection of reality or what is actually, physically happening. That is one thing that very few other media ever had. It seems like [the image] is unmediated by the artist or the producer of the image.

The second thing is that [the] image of photography is aided by the fact that there’s an [apparent] absence of process. There’s the image maker and then there’s a machine. There is an impression, therefore, that there is strength in [photography] being unmediated by the human mind or the human will.

Those two aspects of photography create together something that other media do not offer in speaking about that particular history in combination with the nature of the process itself.

Throughout your career, you have developed over sixty international exhibitions for FotoFest. How does the FotoFest 2014 Biennial differ from previous editions? 

One thing that people don’t realise is that FotoFest is primarily myself and a couple of staff members who select the exhibitions. Since 1990, we have also worked with outside curators, sometimes commissioned and sometimes in collaboration with us. This year’s Biennial is not a radical departure from that. For this Biennial, we are working with and have commissioned an outside curator.

As the lead curator, Karin Adrian von Roques knows the region and has built up a very large inventory and knowledge of leading artists who are working in the region, not only with painting, printmaking and sculpture, but also those who as of the 1990s have begun to work with photo-related art or classical photography. So she brings a very broad knowledge of the region, the culture and various kinds of art in the region and abroad. She comes from a formal, Art History background — both generally and specifically, in terms of the region. Her area of expertise is not photo-related art. My area of expertise is photo-related art, but I’ve had very little history in terms of knowing artists and seeing art from the Arab world — the Middle East and North Africa.

It has brought a particular type of collaboration, where I bring a certain expertise about the medium and she brings a very long expertise with the region and the culture of contemporary Arab artists themselves. We have looked at everything together, over two hundred artists, over a period of four years, primarily through her computer and her files. She has personally contacted [artists], as we have selected people, for their most recent work. She has played a major role, but together we have made the selections.

The remarkable thing is that two very strong-minded people, coming from different kinds of perspectives, have agreed on 90 to 95 percent of the material, in terms of quality and in terms of seriousness. Both of us wanted to create a presentation that was museum quality and could stand up to any art produced by any region in the world. It was not simply “here’s the Middle East,” it was “here are artists from the Middle East and North Africa who merit global attention, are just as good as artists in the West, but are just not as well known because they are not from the United States or western Europe.”

Camille Zakharia, ‘Mounir Haddad and Family’, from the series “Elusive Homelands”, 1999/2000. Image courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery.

Camille Zakharia, ‘Mounir Haddad and Family’, from the series “Elusive Homelands”, 1999/2000. Image courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery.

Do you feel that this specific edition of Middle Eastern artists could have happened at an earlier juncture when the US was reeling from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks? Or is now simply a better time to hold the biennial due to more work coming from photographers based in the Middle East?

Fred Baldwin, the co-founder of FotoFest, and I have had a long interest in the Middle East because of our own personal experiences in different parts of the world relating to cultures in the Middle East. We’ve tried to do it as much as we can, but the problem we always felt was accessibility, travel expenses, research and so forth. In 1996, we did a very important show, not directly Arab, called “Kurdistan in the Shadow of History”, in collaboration with Susan Meiselas. That travelled very widely internationally. In 2005, we did the exhibition “NAZAR”, which originated from an open call for submissions by the Noordelijk Festival in northern Holland. It was works by Arabs and about the Arab world by non-Arabs. We brought it to the United States and thought it was important, as it was a first look at what had been happening with contemporary Arab photographers. It was a largely classical kind of three-dimensional print exhibition. It was a very handsome exhibition and we sent it to the Aperture Foundation in New York.

Meanwhile, there was a younger generation [of artists] who were using newer technology, that weren’t represented by this particular show and we wanted to present that. We just didn’t have a good way to do that until we met Karin Adrian von Roques. She made it accessible without our having to do a lot of travel, which we normally like to do. It was just that it was difficult to travel, because many of the countries’ current circumstances of upheaval, conflict and so forth. She made it possible and that’s why we have done it, when we have done it.

In response to 9/11, we did three shows. One was “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.” It was a show put together from an extraordinary store-front project in SoHo that followed the 9/11 attacks, where both professionals and amateurs brought in photographs that they had taken relative to the event. They were put up with binder clips and clothes pins, and then curated by the founders of the project, Charles Traub and Gilles Peress. I think there were five versions of it and we managed to raise money for one version. It was extraordinary. It drew around 65,000 people, in six weeks here. Another was Simon Norfolk’s work on Afghanistan and a third was extraordinary documentation of the artefacts in the Kabul Museum in the 1960s, before the Museum was destroyed and ransacked. That was our direct response to 9/11. I am not sure bringing “NAZAR” to the US was directly influenced by 9/11, but it did make bringing something from that part of the world more important than ever.

The follow-up had more to do with what work had come after that period and what role the other new technologies were playing on the development of other photo-related work and trying to get the best we can. Not discovering young artists but showing leading artists, already established artists in the Middle East who have not had much exposure in the United States.

To date, how has the biennial been received in the US, both by critics and by the public?

The attendance is up and there’s a big divergence and diversity of the people who are coming to see the exhibition. People are very surprised at the range of work from installations, to video to very contextual photography and classical photography. There is interest from other prestigious institutions, possibly buying some of the work. Most of the work is unknown to most of the people.

People who are here from the Middle East are gallery owners, journalists, writers. They say they have never seen such a broad, diverse presentation of contemporary Arab art and also, for many of them, this is the first time that they see a large number of works by each artist. Rather than one or two pieces, our intention with this exhibition has always been to show between seven and ten pieces at least, because only when you begin to see the multiple number of pieces, you begin to have a sense of an artist’s work and way of thinking.

Ahmed Mater, ‘Later Be Past’, from the series “Desert of Pharan”,  2013. Image courtesy the artist and Athr Gallery.

Ahmed Mater, ‘Later Be Past’, from the series “Desert of Pharan”, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Athr Gallery.

Karin Adrian von Roques, Senior Curator 

Have you seen a change in how regional and international audiences approach or collect contemporary art from the Middle East in the past five to ten years? How?

More than twenty years ago, I started looking at what was happening in the art field in Arab countries. I had travelled around [in the region] and I understood that a very vivid art scene existed, but it remained almost unknown in the West. I decided to find out the reasons why this was the case. My research involved a survey, done during 1998 and 1999, that included Western gallery owners at famous art fairs, like Art Basel, Art Cologne or NCI Paris, asking why they did not have Arab artists in their programmes.

From my survey, I found that there were many false ideas in existence [about artists from the Middle East], such as “Can they do art?”, “Do they only copy western art?” and “Can they make art because they have banned images?” These false ideas lead to the reason why there was no art market, no infrastructure and no collectors at that time [for Arab artists]. I recorded 100 responses from gallery owners and the answers were so repetitive, I could practically categorise them.

At that time, I was travelling in the Arab countries. There, the situation was quite different. In Egypt, Syria or Morocco, there was a totally different situation than in the Gulf States. The Gulf States were the first states in the region to be interested in building up a cultural infrastructure. In the early 1990s, the Emir of Sharjah was aware that it was important to establish museums. He developed, among others, a Museum for Modern art. They started holding a Biennial, which in the beginning was not really taken seriously outside of the Gulf, but over time it became more and more serious.

Dubai developed into a very modern city and Abu Dhabi started an idea of an island with many important museums like a branch from the Guggenheim and the Louvre, which drew attention to that region. These were expensive, exclusive and exotic projects. Then, they started Art Dubai and later followed Art Abu Dhabi. This was possible because the Gulf States had enough money available, while places such as Egypt, had a longer tradition and more museums, but they did not have the money to fund similar projects, as in the Gulf.

Can you pinpoint a particular historic event or movement that made Middle Eastern contemporary art more visible to collectors or patrons outside of the Gulf Region?

After I had done the research, I was convinced of the necessity of bringing exhibitions to western museums, to present artists from Arab countries. After 9/11, although there were increasingly negative ideas, there were also increasing interest in what was happening in that part of the world, so that enabled me to do these types of exhibitions. That was beginning in 2002, 2003 and the following years.

All of a sudden, in 2004, there was a desire for people to build up collections, with more Arab people starting to collect art from Arab artists. At the same time, more museums in the West became interested in exhibiting or purchasing Arab art for their collections. Christie’s decided to open up an office in Dubai and they held their first auction [there] in 2006.

I myself became a consultant for Deutsche Bank, which is famous for its important art collection, and they asked me to advise them about purchasing Arab art. They then began to buy works from Saudi artists, from Emirati artists, Algerian artists, and so on.

Steve Sabella, 'Metamorphosis', 2012 Lambda print + iasec mount + 5 cm aluminum edge,160 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Berloni Gallery.

Steve Sabella, ‘Metamorphosis’, 2012, Lambda print, Diasec mount, 5 cm aluminium edge, 160 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Berloni Gallery.

How is this particular biennial significant for both the artists involved and those visiting Houston?

As mentioned above, it has been a very slow process getting these fabulous artists’ works out to be shown in the West. I think it is still not enough, because apart from art historians, curators, museum people and art lovers, a broader group of people are [still] not aware of what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa. I think we should not forget that lots of stereotypes still exist about the Arab countries. I see this all the time and get the same questions about women having veils, the oppression of women by men, if women can do art in Arab countries, how easy is it for me to work in Arab countries as a woman and can artists do art because they have banned images.

When you hold an exhibition, it helps people answer these questions, and they can then start to think differently and see things differently. Contemporary artists deal with contemporary matters, be it on a social, political or personal level, spiritual context and so on. To me, an exhibition is also a way to inform people and bring them into the discussion about these topics.

FotoFest is recognised internationally as a serious cultural institution and it’s a bigger platform, not just an exhibition with a bunch of artists. It is possible to present 49 artists from different Arab countries and give an overview of what is going on. This is a first of all for the artists. They have this unique opportunity to present their work, become more well-known and also may have an exhibition of their own in the future with other institutions like museums and the bigger galleries.

For the audience, it is an opportunity to be confronted with a lot of different, interconnected topics. It gives an idea about what is going on, what is actually important, but at the same time, it’s on a universal level that these are issues that are human issues. If you’re American, Chinese or Arab, you have common issues. It is wonderful what you can see through art.

Do you feel it is important for seminars, dialogues and interviews to accompany this particular biennial, especially since some Americans may not be aware of the socio-political context or history behind certain images?

The good thing is that we have accompanying programmes. These can deepen the [audience’s] understanding of a particular topic. We have one day-long conference on Arab art, and we have a programme on the current upheaval in the Middle East and what it has done to the people there. We also have artists present who can directly talk about the issues or answer questions. We have another conference called “Arabophobia”, which is dealing with stereotypes.

For example, there is often a discussion in the West about women in the Middle East who wear the veil. There are many who automatically feel that when a women is wearing a veil, they are oppressed, but you have to look closer at the history of the veil and why they wore it in the context of history. These programmes seek to explain these ideas, when possible.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Knust’, from the series “Upekkha” 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Nermine Hammam, ‘Knust’, from the series “Upekkha”, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you think that photography is a medium that offers artists in the Gulf Region greater means of expression than painting or sculpture? How?

Artists started creating work in Egypt or Morocco before it spread to the Gulf Region. There was not that much photography. They were exposed to painting, due to colonisation and trade with the Oriental countries, so they began to experiment in that medium. This was true in Lebanon, Morocco and Syria. Artistic expression in the Gulf States started later. They had oil and because of this revenue, they could develop cities and began, maybe fifty years ago, to develop their artistic expression, painting and so on.

Photography was not that popular. It came about, especially in the nineties, with the Internet and new technology. The younger generation started to use photography, video and doing installations. I don’t think that photography is the most important medium. All kinds of means are used to express artistic ideas. Certain images were banned, but still appeared in places such as Egypt. I think that photography is on the same level as painting and that all of these are used as an artistic expression.

Lisa Pollman

Related Topics: biennials, interviews, Islamic art, photography, West Asian artists, events in Houston

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