curated by Dore Bowen and Isabelle Massu

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Van Leo: Miss Nadia Abdel Wahed

 

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

San Francisco, California, Spring 2007

NOT GIVEN: Talking of and around Images of Arab Women

This complex and fascinating exhibition at SF Camerawork, San Francisco, is hardly what one expects, given our stilted knowledge of the Arab experience through news media and Hollywood. Yet we are fascinated with and desperate to know more about the Arab world and the Islamic life given current international politics. The photographs selected from the Arab Image Foundation, in Beruit, Lebanon by curators Dore Bowen and Isabelle Massu reflect its emphasis on portraiture, social life and culture during a period of recent history that certainly undermines stereotypical expectations. Selected works are seen as both large-scale prints and cycling projections with sound in various sites throughout the gallery. Contrasting insights into the more contemporary face of Arabic women, from photographs, writings and personal experiences, and research by the curators are also presented so that the visitor can sit and peruse through books and albums. The audio repetitions of keywords from the archiving system in the image bank, as much as edifying the listener, seem to reveal a process of objectifying the subjects, in an endless search for data. The mystery, the experience and the revelations of this exhibition are realized slowly, leaving the visitor with one certainty: there is so much more to know.

Dore Bowen, who is an Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at San Jose State University and Isabelle Massu, a French media artist, are both interested in photography. Bowen, who received her Doctorate in Visual and Cultural Studies at Rochester University, became fascinated with phenomenology — what (we think) we know through observation of appearances. The photograph, of course, is the site of all sorts of assumptions based on appearance. Further, it explores the consciousness and possibilities for self-representation of its subjects. Massu has given workshops to empower Algerian immigrant women through teaching audio and computer technology in France, and to women displaced through violent politics in Algeria. Bowen and Massu were both working in Marseilles when reactionary politics in France proposed the banning of Islamic head coverings and veils on women in educational institutions. The provocative veil controversy motivated them to find a way to portray Arab women from more than a singular, or simplistic perspective. Discovery of and ultimate collaboration with the Arab Image Foundation became the vehicle for the exhibition, Not Given. Through a wide range of image, sound, text and numerous supplementary public programs, the curators have opened the door for multiple opinions and conclusions about the Arab experience behind the Arab image.

One of the first, greatly enlarged images that greets the viewer to Not Given is an Arabic woman wearing heavy, fifties’ style, Hollywood make-up and a black bustier. Something of a Liz Taylor look-alike, she reclines on a small stage, her legs kicking up toward us. She is revealing a good deal of cellulite, as she improbably pulls off a silk stocking. Is she the same young woman, mentioned elsewhere in the exhibition, that entered the studio of photographer, Van Leo, and asked to be photographed in a progressive and complete strip-tease? Others clearly are portraits of movie stars and famous people taken by Van Leo, the prominent Cairo portrait photographer. Throughout the cycling projections we can see more women who wear heavy make-up, strike poses, wear costumes or dress in seductive and glamorous style. Some of the female subjects pay a nominal respect to Islam through a lacy veil that barely goes from nose to upper lip and is more flirtatious than modest. So many of the women show a relaxed attitude toward the modesty we expect from fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Many of them evoke a chuckle for their dated fashions. There are the humorous, strange, glamorous, staid, seductive and the demure. Further, there are the couples, the families, the children, and the men. These are all subjects whose worldliness and middleclass economic status allow them to indulge themselves in front of the camera. At the same time, the archive does include family portraits and photographs of people whose lifestyle is clearly simpler, more modest and probably only marginally middle class.

From a phenomenological viewpoint, the digital images, and the way they have been archived, suggest a great deal about social context, gender and class, about language structure, and about self-image and role-playing in front of the camera, for women, as well as for men and children. Careful listening and examination of the texts will reveal that our first takes and assumptions about many photographs are incorrect. The viewer must engage a larger picture and be willing to leave with more questions than answers. As important as what is exposed, is what is not given in this show — extensive portrayal of veiled or submissive women, or — the stunning 60’s portraits of Algerian Women in a book by Marc Garanger notwithstanding, — images of Arabic women painted with a broad brush. The images are surprising and new to our eyes. We begin to realize, from the many possibilities behind each photograph, how a reductive process of objectification works, particularly in a situation where we want to classify, order and label individuals. We struggle not to make assumptions or essentialist conclusions about Islamic society from single examples, or the way that an image is categorized.

A separate audio component consisting of four stories beginning with a woman’s verbal description of herself in her native tongue‚Äîinspired from a self-selected photograph, which is then reinterpreted by a series of other listeners who form their own mental picture of her and the photograph — is an illustrative case presented in the exhibition. We have all played that parlor game where a secret is passed, by whispering from ear to ear around a group, and had a hearty laugh to learn what it had become when it came back to its origins. Why are we so rushed to make sense, on our own terms, of everything we see and hear?

Not Given includes a film made by Akram Zaatari on the life and work of Van Leo. Among the stories told by Van Leo is one of photographing his grandmother in ongoing states of undress until she was completely nude. Van Leo took the pictures in 1959, but eventually saw the country changing, felt that even keeping these pictures and other nudes he had shot was too risky, and so he destroyed them. Bowen notes that undress, as a keyword in the archive, will call up many images of women and only one man (this is displayed in the back room). Further, any images of men showing flesh are strong men, muscle men or sportsmen. Other examples of ways the photographs in the image bank are gendered further suggest a cultural regimen is behind certain selections and omissions, or within the entire process of photographing and collecting for posterity. But, again, early assumptions are dangerous.

The archive consists of more than 75,000 images taken between 1872 and the 1980’s, the great bulk being from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. This is a period when the Middle East was in relatively peaceful relations with the West and some of the most interesting photographs reveal the degree to which the subjects had incorporated Western fashion and Western photographic portraiture into their lives. I found one recent publication in the exhibition that, in strong contemporary graphics, satires the foolishness of George Bush invading Iraq — something of an anomaly in this show.

Bowen and Massu emphasized Arabic women in the first showing of Not Given, in Marseilles, France. In San Francisco, they decided to include other pointed groupings of figures that question the way costume and make-up allow us to configure ourselves, change gender, deny gender, how children may begin to form a self-image, and the posture we all assume in front of the camera.

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Studio Shehrazade: Hashem el Madani

 

 

Bowen and Massu bring together one group of projections where men are dressed as women, women dressed as men, a pair of men are dressed as bride and groom, and yet the digitally archived collection has no keywords for calling up images of homosexuality. Bowen offers that the classification of images in the Image Bank is done in a French system, but the fact that words like homosexuality are not included leads us to another surprise. We learn that the photographs of two men or two women kissing or posing as bride and groom were not necessarily homosexual in content. In parts of a society where eye contact between unmarried men and women is strictly forbidden, certainly touching and kissing before marriage are out of the question. Anticipating the big event might bring two young men or two young women to the photo studio to kiss and pose before the camera, with one of the pair standing in for the bride or groom.

At the very beginning of the exhibition, in books and prints, are images of costumed children from the ages of perhaps three to twelve. I am still amused by the formal portrait of boy of about three, in his knit suit with short pants, astride a giant cylindrical form that could be seen as part of an architectural column, or a bullet or a well-worn lipstick. The portraits of the rest of the children leave little gender ambiguity. The boys are dressed as generals, cowboys and Lawrence of Arabia. The girls may be cowgirls or geishas, ballet dancers, or angels. Still, one questions whether children simply choose one of the costumes offered by the photographer, who may think in terms of gender appropriateness, or if the costumes are chosen by parents, or if a child with a strong self-image demands to dress according to his or her fantasy. Are childhood experiences of “dress-up” formative in adult identities?

It is important to note that although this image bank calls itself the Arab Image Foundation, it is unclear how pan-Arabic the sources of these photographs actually are. Lebanon, itself is one of the most multicultural, multi-faith countries of the Arab world. Recent news tells us that a young Iraqi lady in exile in Beruit is the winner of an American Idol-type talent contest. Cairo, the source of many more of the photographs, has long been the hub of international commerce, and worldly coexistence politics. Yet, the Arab world, we are reminded today, also includes Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, and at least politically, other nearby Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Iran: each one westernized to varying degrees and fundamentalist to other extents, and divided into economic classes, North and South, East and West, city and countryside.

I am recalling now, that at the Cuban Bienale in 1989, I met a young artist from Egypt whose beautiful black and white lithographs were all abstract patterns in deference to an Islamic prohibition against any kind of depiction of the human form. Yet Egypt is also the center of the Arabic film industry. Imagine film without human drama. The very existence of an Arab Image Foundation seems yet another fascinating contradiction.

Questions of human representation aside, could such an image bank ever claim to fully represent the spectrum of Arab experience? Actually, it does not attempt to do so, focusing instead on the collected works of particular photographers of the Arab world. But the danger that we make more assumptions, based on the limited information or relative truths any photograph provides, remains.

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