By Claudia Polledri
According to Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, photography is expressed in many ways. This is the message of his most recent exhibition, Against Photography: An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation, a kaleidoscopic journey, through stories and images, into the archives of the Arab Image Foundation, an institution with which he has profound connections. Here, he proposes to retrace the history of the foundation, documented and paraphrased from his viewpoint as an artist. Presented from July to September 2017 at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and from November 2017 to February 2018 at K21 in Düsseldorf, Against Photography will make its final stop in spring 2018 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea.
The Arab Image Foundation. 1997–2017: It has been twenty years since the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) was founded. Established in Beirut, in a country still in the process of reconstruction after a long civil war (1975–90), the AIF is the successful response of a group of artists – Akram Zaatari, Fouad Elkoury, and Samer Mohdad – to the absence of institutions in the region devoted to the conservation and dissemination of the cultural heritage. Directed by Marc Mouarkech and by Clémence Cottard Hachem, the director of collections, today the AIF has about six hundred thousand pictures, most of them taken in the Maghreb and the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordon, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco). It is in fact through the illustration of the geographic roots of the AIF that the journey begins; it is a way of enabling visitors to situate the provenance of the collections, but it also indicates the relationship between image and territory as being one of the underlying themes of this visual trajectory. Since its foundation, the AIF has constantly evolved not only through acquisitions, but also through the conservation and digitization of its photographic collection and activities to highlight it. The fifteen exhibitions produced over these years provide a clear example of this. After participating in its foundation and producing many of these exhibitions, today Zaatari continues his collaboration with the AIF through his art practice and remains no doubt one of those most familiar with its photographic heritage.
To see this exhibition solely as a depiction of the history of the AIF would, however, not take its full scope into account. Nor is it simply a retrospective of Zaatari’s work, even though the works on display cover a fairly wide period of his production. Rather, it is the overlapping of his two careers, one institutional and the other artistic, that makes this show so rich and stimulating, from the point of view of both the artworks on display and the research undertaken by Zaatari in the foundation’s archives. But what makes it even more captivating is the variety of treatments to which Zaatari submits photographic objects in order to highlight their documentary and aesthetic potential, as well as his technique and the assorted uses and experiments to which it may be subjected. In short, it is a true reflection in images that Zaatari proposes, a discourse on photography, which, he explains, “figures not only as a medium, but also as a subject.” It is a subject, I might add, that is also clearly situated. Indeed, whether it is considered according to his technical variations – from calotype to gelatine silver to digital – or his social practice, his relationship with the sites and events that took place in them has clearly had a central role. What emerge are rich and stratified images, in which the history of photography, placed in the foreground, is in constant dialogue with the history of the region. Three major axes were the object of Zaatari’s visual reflection: the collections, photography studios, and photographic technique. They are articulated in a strongly coherent exhibition that makes no moral judgments…
Translated by Käthe Roth
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