Academic journal article Afterimage

Reconsidering an Arab Identity

Academic journal article Afterimage

Reconsidering an Arab Identity

Article excerpt





Despite the media hype that exists on American television ranting about the turmoil and social unrest in the Middle East, a gentle yet thought-provoking exhibition entitled "Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography and Video" recently resided at the Virginia Commonwealth University at Qatar's Gallery and reflected the contemplative and philosophically-driven nature of many of the artists represented in the show. Curated by Natalie Bailey and Sally Van Gorder, the exhibition presents works by twelve artists working with photography, video, and interactive media and who reside in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Driven by the theme of self-representation, this exhibition examines a range of work from the personal and intimate documentary photography of Loredana Mantello that portrays the Shi'ite community in Bahrain to Nuha Asad's sensuous yet socially acute photographs of heads covered by red textiles to Anas Al-Shaikh's photographs and interactive work that critically examine the Arab image.


In the surreal-like work entitled World Without Strangers (2007), Al-Shaikh incorporates symbols and iconography into a photographic composite of Arab men against trees in a pristine western landscape resembling a campus environment. The figures, all of whom happen to be Arab artists, have their hands playfully raised--conjuring notions of villain or suspect. Al-Shaikh incorporates graphic symbols as metaphoric tools to reinforce the various thoughts and associations that accompany the stereotype of the Arab male. Placed beside some of the men are cell phones and other electronic devices, which sometimes are associated as "tools of terrorism" when accompanied by Arabs. According to Al-Shaikh, World Without Strangers represents the tensions sometimes facilitated by the messages created by western politicians and media in regard to the Arab community.

Manal Al Dowayan's striking photographs present empowering images of Saudi women who are transcending traditional career paths. The images are meant to be iconic representations of Saudi women rather than actual people. Al Dowayan uses the burka or other props to conceal the women's identity. Her photograph, I am ... a Petroleum Engineer (2006) presents a portrait of a Saudi woman wearing a hardhat and uniform. However, her identity is concealed by a beautifully decorated traditional Saudi burka. Not only does she want to promote the idea of women who are exceeding the traditional gender-defined roles of women in Saudi, but to "show that traditions are also beautiful." (1)

Camille Zakharia's documentary-style photographs represent both his personal and social concerns. In the black-and-white photograph Bouri 4--Bahrain (2006), opened rusting gates reveal a trashed car jacked up on its side by cinder blocks. The vehicle appears to have been abandoned on the side of a street in the seemingly sparse desert landscape. Other photographs capture areas of Bahrain with dilapidated buildings and peeling paint or old signage through a glass window. Zakharia writes in his artist statement, "When I turned 44 years old, I became more aware of my own mortality. I realized, suddenly, that I became the future I never thought I would be ... I saw myself in rusty metal and weathered walls, ragged clothes and everything that reflects the passage of time." (2) While Bahrain is rapidly modernizing, the aging walls of Bahrainian architecture are not only metaphors regarding his own aging but his personal reflection on the "erosion of the Arabic identity." (3)

Mohammed Kazem's photographic installation "Autobiography 97-03 Flags" (1997-2003) is a series of photographs depicting Kazem with his back to the viewer beside construction markers peering out to the once undeveloped, sublime landscape of Dubai. …

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