Akram Zaatari explores modernity and the photographic image at Contemporary Art Museum Barcelona.
“Against Photography: an annotated history of the Arab Image Foundation”, which includes a number of new works by Akram Zaatari, is open until 25 September 2017.
In 1997, Akram Zaatari co-founded the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) in Beirut with the aim of promoting and researching photography theory and practice in the Middle East and North Africa. The non-profit institution, widely known for its experimental public program of exhibitions and interventions by artists working with notions of collecting and archiving, was also founded partly to contain the personal collecting practices of the artists involved in its foundation.
In the exhibition “Against Photography. An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation” at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), curated by Hiuwai Chu, Akram Zaatari’s artworks are displayed alongside a timeline detailing the history of AIF. The aim of the curatorial decision to trace the moments in which the histories of the artist and institution cross, is to illustrate how questions concerning archival practices have been central to artists like Zaatari and others of his generation (such as Walid Raad), as well as how artist-led initiatives similar to AIF have incorporated experimental policies of collection and preservation.
The works in the exhibition are organized around 5 main themes: On the Photograph and the Vehicle, On Morphology, On Displacement and Performativity, On Photography, People and Modern Times, Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, Object Narratives, Against Photography and Archives of the Future.
Retouch (2017) restages a 1950s image of a young film star, testing older techniques such as retouching colour to black and white images by hand. In a kitch rendition, in which the name of the process (“retouch”) is stamped across the image itself, Zaatari performs a tautology characteristic of conceptual photography experiments of the 1960s and 1970s.
Photographic formations or “emergences”, as Zaatari calls them, have been the focus of the artist’s practice since 1995. The study of emergences can be seen in the works that stem from the original project: The Vehicle: Picturing Moments of Transition in a Modernising Society (1999). Also an exhibition of the same title at AIF, this project looked at two significant inventions of the late nineteenth century: the camera and the motor vehicle. Partly returning to The Vehicle, this display is informed by the artist’s ongoing work with archival objects. Both sides of the photograph are reproduced to size and given equal importance, allowing viewers access to both the family and the institution’s annotations on the back.
The move from taking photographs to the practice of collecting them, embodied in such works, also traces the shifting research interests of the AIF and Akram Zaatari: beginning in the mid-2000s, both began to profoundly explore the conceptual and practical problems with institutionalized preservation. Zaatari writes in the press catalogue:
To collect photographs is to engage in a process of selective recording, like a second reading, like creative rewriting that is no less photographic than the act of taking images itself.
This shift is announced by Zaatari’s work documenting the life of Hashem el-Madani, a mid-20th century studio photographer working in the artist’s hometown of Saïda. Hashem el-Madani has been a key subject for Zaatari’s research since they met in 1999. Zaatari considers Studio Shehrazade as a site for an archaeological intervention that seeks to unearth not only the negatives and photographs taken in the studio, but also the stories behind them, and the social and economic framework that sustains a photographic practice in a small town.
In Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem (2017), which occupied its own room at MACBA, Zaatari rehearses a ludicrous act of over-preservation by filling traditional photo storage cabinets with photographs of everything in el-Madani’s studio — from cameras to collections of pencils — and placing them before the separate work Objects of Study / Studio Sheherazade (2006) – huge photographs of the original studio reception. For Zaatari, the point is that the photographs produced in el-Madani’s studio were only one part of what photography meant in the local context, which Zaatari and the AIF began to see as also having been established by the medium’s wider framework. This included the inner life of the photographer, the photographer’s studio and the social relations established around the location.
The question of what an archive of the image fails to commemorate is particularly relevant in a country marred by decades of civil war and invasion. In On Photography, Dispossession and Times of Struggle (2017) — a film constituted by a compilation of interviews conducted by Zataari with people whose photographs were lost because of war — the artist meditates on loss and absence as elements that institutionalized photography archives struggle to deal with. As Zaatari further probes in a March 2013 interview with anthropologist Mark Westmoreland, “can emotions be preserved with pictures?” The difficulty in answering that question perhaps motivated the artist’s move into increasingly abstract terrain.
From conceptual photography experiments to post-colonial critique, the exhibition’s titular work confirms Zaatari’s current reticent position. Against Photography (2017)— 12 aluminum engravings produced from weathered negatives scanned and then put through a 3D scanner that records only surface texture—withdraws from the image entirely, leaving behind only the shine of relief.
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