Culture

Secrets of the Shutterbug Sisterhood

BEIRUT: The first full-fledged international art fair to launch in the Lebanese capital may still have a long way to go before Beirut gets the kind of showcase, market-driven event that its art scene deserves.

The inaugural edition of MENASART, which took place at the Beirut Exhibition and Leisure Center last week, was a mixed bag. It didn’t quite capture the city’s critical or commercial potential. Nor did it live up to Beirut’s reputation for style and entrepreneurial spirit.

There were signs of promise, though. Of the 24 participating galleries, a handful managed to nail the notion of the concept booth, presenting artworks not in the haphazard, down and dirty, sell-everything manner of a market stall but rather as a concise and cogent articulation of a higher intellectual, emotional or aesthetic theme.

Nadine Begdache of Beirut’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz, for example, organized a proper exhibition of contemporary female iconography, featuring Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s magisterial mixed-media tributes to Fairuz and Um Kulthoum alongside Huguette Caland’s gorgeous new series entitled “She,” Samir Khaddaje’s bricolage-style portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Laure Ghorayeb’s delightful homage to Remi Bandali, the child star and member of the Bandali Family, whose infectious hit single “Do You Love Me” is still the most popular You Tube video in Lebanon.

Saleh Barakat of the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra presented a similarly coherent selection, choosing to forgo the fair’s considerable bling factor – epitomized by two absurdly out-of-place Ferraris parked in the middle of the exhibition venue – by radically reducing the color palette of his booth to black and white, and mixing up established and emerging artists, such as Chaouki Choukini, whose sculptures are rarely shown in public, and Omar Fakhoury, whose paintings riffing on the geometric patterns of the old Holiday Inn’s façade were selling briskly by the time MENASART opened to the public on June 13.

But the incontestable winner of the best-booth award, had there been such a thing, would have had to have gone to Elie Domit of the Empty Quarter in Dubai, which gave over its entire space to Rawiya, a newly formed collective of five female photographers (the group’s name means “she who tells a story”), whose work was sensitively curated by Hester Keijser.

One of the only galleries in the region devoted exclusively to photography, the Empty Quarter has also, more recently, become a hothouse for curatorial thought.

Last spring, it presented “The Spectacle of War,” a thought-provoking exhibition featuring the work of Trevor Paglen and Richard Mosse, among others, which explored the uncomfortably close relationships between photography and organized violence, armed conflict and mass entertainment.

This fall, the gallery is hosting an equally ambitious show about the desert, as concept, and deserts, as actual sites that are far from empty but rather dangerously vulnerable to exploitation and illicit activity.

Both of those shows signal a willingness to take political risks, particularly in the context of the UAE, where the acquisition of arms and the implications of desertification are both sensitive issues. The Empty Quarter’s presentation of Rawiya was likewise a gamble. To paraphrase Domit, documentary-style photography is usually the first thing to get shafted from an art fair, where trophy art, pretty pictures and diamond-studded skulls tend to sell more quickly than evidence of some of the grimmest realities on earth.

“This is a very sincere and unpretentious show,” says Domit. “It isn’t about the entourage.”

In five names, Rawiya is Tamara Adul Hadi, Laura Boushnak, Tanya Habjouqa, Dalia Khamissy and Newsha Tavakolian, who are currently based in Ramallah, Sarajevo, East Jerusalem, Beirut and Tehran, respectively. Although some of the group’s members have known each other for more than a decade, the idea for creating the collective came about in 2009, recalls Khamissy, after an impassioned discussion about photography over beers in Barometre, the classic Hamra watering hole.

“Having worked in hard news cycles and not finding the storytelling completely fulfilling,” says Habjouqa, “we were all turning to more in-depth, social documentary work. We thought that if we could use each other collectively as a springboard to attract more attention, we could make greater waves. We were also fans of each other’s work, so that made it quite easy. It was a natural progression in a lot of ways.”

All five members of Rawiya have worked as photojournalists or photo editors, covering conflicts in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran for newspapers, magazines and wire agencies. In many ways, the collective is an organized response to professional frustration, whether with editors scripting stories in advance, often in accordance with irritating stereotypes about women in the region; or with editors assuming the Middle East has no native-born photography talent, opting to drop a foreigner in for a few days to cover a story rather than assign an unknown (and often under-employed) local; or with the ridiculous questions the collective’s members are so often asked: What do your parents think about your profession? Why aren’t you wearing a hijab? Are you allowed to work as a woman in your country? And, a group favorite, why aren’t you married yet?

Against type, the collective pools together the kinds of stories from the region that too often go untold, such as Khamissy’s ongoing, long-term project on the families of the 17,000 people, many of them children, who went missing during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, or Habjouqa’s powerful “Women of Gaza” series, about captivity and imagination in the mental and physical prison of occupation (she is also working on another, more playful project, in collaboration with a filmmaker, about the Palestine Speed Sisters, a group of women race car drivers).

Among Rawiya’s specialties are stories to which its members have unparalleled access as women. For example, it would be hard to imagine a man earning the trust of illiterate women in Cairo learning to read and write, or sticking with the story long enough to ask those same women to write their own stories on the prints of their portraits, as Boushnak has done for the series “I Read I Write.”

The same goes for Tamara Abdul Hadi’s “Portraits of Young Arab Men,” which delicately dissects constructions of masculinity in tender, sensual portraits of seminude men who are, in the mainstream media, more typically depicted as terrorists or fanatics.

Taking the collective’s ethos a step further is Newsha Tavakolian’s “Listen,” a multi-faceted body of work about singers in Iran who are not allowed to perform in public, release albums, or record videos because they are women. Among the several different articulations of the work are faux album covers of the artist standing in for her subjects (wearing boxing gloves or a tiara, standing in the street or the sea) and a six-screen video installation of women singing, which is hauntingly deprived of sound.

“There’s strength in numbers,” says Khamissy. “We already had our own contacts but we thought we could join forces and make our voices louder. Each one of us has a totally different style, and even though we worried about that at first, we came to the conclusion that it’s for the best. We are five now, and we can back each other up.”

For more information about Rawiya, please see www.rawiya.net.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2011, on page 16.

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