BEIRUT: Veteran photographer Samer Mohdad is well-known around Lebanon for his several projects, not least his role as co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation. Mohdad was also a guest at the 2014 edition of Houston’s the FotoFest biennale (March 15-April 27), where he curated a show devoted to work from the Arab world.The oldest and most prestigious U.S. platform for photographic and visual arts, FotoFest was founded in 1983 by Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin. It has attracted the attention of the celebrities of photography and visual art, as well as international arts organizations and private and institutional collectors.
During the event, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts hosted a conference on the place of visual art in the Arab world, featuring presentations by biennale curator Karin von Roques; Ussama Makdisi, the head of Rice University’s Arab Studies department; and art historian Salawa Mikdadi.
Mohdad chatted with The Daily Star about the project and the need to change people’s perceptions of art.
Q: What can you tell us about FotoFest?
A: For me it was a discovery. It was the first time I participated, and I appreciated the dynamism and energy. The U.S. are contemporary art market leaders and those concerned with art invest big amounts of money ... and they are well-educated to do it with taste and intelligence.
Q: What were the key points of this edition?
A: One of the main [goals] was to meet an interested and curious audience. I have attended exhibitions ... in Europe and elsewhere, [but] I never felt the way I felt in Houston. ... From the moment an artist or author is known, the audience supports him on all grounds, for him to be able to continue his work worry-free.
Another key point was the auction organized to raise funds for ... FotoFest. Artists ... donated one of their works to finance FotoFest’s diverse activities in education and research. ... A big sum was collected. ... One of my small photographs – of a child with a balloon on the columns of the ruined Sabaen Temple in Marib, Yemen – attracted a record $5,500.
Q: Which subjects did you tackle at the Museum of Fine Arts conference?
A: My intervention reflected the essay I wrote for the booklet accompanying the exhibition. I talked about the first creator of camera obscura, Ibn al-Lahez. I then introduced this genre in the region and showed how this art evolved [and] shifted from the Orientalism practiced by Western photographers at the end of the 19th century.
[I also explained] how local photographers took power in the 20th century, to bring this art back to a new realism which [respects] the demands of people on Arab thought and culture.
I expressed my future vision of what the arts and culture of people from the region could be in the next 50 years, where – sooner or later – there will be a separation between religion and state constitutions.
The presence of photography and visual art in Saudi Arabia was one of the themes tackled. There was important participation from artists of the Gulf countries. The question of women and their role in artistic creation in the Arab world was also raised. All the interventions expressed the same need: one of freedom and deliverance from social habits installed by religious practices.
Q: What did you hope to achieve with your photos?
A: Karin von Roques and Wendy Waitriss selected my photographs. They chose 31 in black and white ... from “Children of War, Lebanon 1985-1992,” to “Return to Gaza,” with an important role given to “My Arabias,” as well as “Assaoudia,” and ending with “Beyrouth Mutations.”
These photographs reflect with precision the title of the biennale “The Arab World seen from Within.” [This has been my] slogan since the beginning of my work in 1985, where my photographs were always made with that same intention: [to show] the Arab world ... in its intimacy [and] cultural diversity, to situate them better.
The Arab world ... lives on two levels: the apparent and the hidden. This causes a sort of schizophrenia provoked by self-censorship. Despite all the oppression and limitation of freedom, the Arab human being always defends his image to the foreigner.
We cannot look at Arab populations as though they belong to only one identity. ... This region saw the birth of the first judicial code based on crime and [punishment], which is still in practice [worldwide]. ... For me, the duty of an artist [and] writer is to re-establish the truth corresponding to reality.
The core of my work turns around this concept, adding the magical effect, the one of being able to capture reality in moments surpassing fiction.
Q: Do you think that people’s approach to photography has changed recently?
A: Change is more perceivable in technical terms. Nowadays, photography – or the image in general – plays a role in our daily lives. This is due to digital photography and the integration of cameras in all the daily equipment we use. ... This does not make everyone an ... artist. Everyone has the capacity to write, but not everyone is a writer.
I think the Arab world is starting to change. For now, many people perceive the business of art as if it were a McDonald’s product, especially in the Gulf. ... The tribal and caste systems are also perceivable in the perception of ... art, as in any form of artistic expression.
The younger generation is starting to take leverage. They were born in a world drowning in visual communication and a culture of images. Step by step, they will take the initiative and create a real change in our Arab societies. ... This change is imperative for the evolution of artistic creation, for it to join the center of decisions in the contemporary art world.
I think it is strange to discover Arab artists and their works in Houston. It is a shame that Arabs are united only with their language and that they never get along on common points to enable a change in mentalities, the ones that lead only to conflicts and wars.
The organizers are programming a [smaller version] of this event in the UAE. But the liberty [of expression] in Lebanon ... [would] enable [us] to tackle subjects unable to be tackled elsewhere in the region.