Reconsidering an Arab Identity

Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography & Video Review
Virginia Commonwealth University at Qatar Gallery
Doha, Qatar
October 24–December 1, 2007
Originally printed in the January/February 2008 issue of Afterimage
Posted June 25, 2008

"I am a....Petroleum Engineer" by Manal Al DowayanDespite 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 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. He 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. The unsuspecting flags foreshadowed the tremendous growth that has occurred in Dubai and reflects the changing nature of the environment and identity of the Emiratis. Over time these images may become even more significant as they will mark the pinnacle moment in the changing identity of Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates.

Madeline McGehee’s sepia-toned photographs such as How Does it Work? (2006) and Dinner (2006) appear to reference 1950s’ films and advertisements from both the Middle East and the United Sates, possibly reflecting her transcultural background as a member of a foreign service family who has lived in many parts of the world during her life. Rather than creating a cutting commentary, the images appear to reference western idealized lifestyles in both parts of the world. For instance, in McGehee’s satirical image How Does it Work?, a docile wife listens intently to her knowing husband’s wisdom as he explains the mechanism that he is holding. However, is it an image from a Middle Eastern or western household? This ambiguity raises more issues regarding gender roles and globalization than settles one’s appetite. A student at Virginia Commonwealth University at Qatar, McGehee works from intuition rather than agenda and sees the installation and the actors within these manufactured settings as a canvas she photographs.

Also addressing issues of gender are Roqaya Al-Thani’s intimate photographs WoMan-Episode 1 (2007), a set of two digital photographs depicting an Arab woman wearing a ghutra, a scarf traditionally worn by a man. The two tightly cropped images of the woman’s head reveals the questioning yet passive gaze of the model. Al-Thani states, “In our culture, the male grows up and knows that he’s important simply because he is male. They forget the Hadith of the Prophet, ‘women are sisters of men,’ which means men and women are equal.”(4)

Hassan Meer’s gentle yet philosophically driven video installation My Studio (2007) is an abstract narrative of daily events that include reflections, memories, and activities that play an integral part in the construction of one’s identity. In its self-portrait style using sepia-toned imagery, the video depicts an idealized life of an artist working on a project while reflecting on his past and his present day life. He states, “I am playing the role of what I am doing. I put myself in a situation of how I see and interact with the world.”(5)

Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s new C Series and single-channel video, Blue (2007), depart from his concerns of barriers and belonging and introduces the idea of transience and the sublime. Eliminating all color from his images with the exception of blue, his works bring in notions of the unknown and uncertainty. For example, Untitled 2 (C-Series) (2007), captures a bedouin tent as it stands alone in the desert beside a fence. The blue tarp covering the structure flaps in a strong wind, conjuring up notions of impermanence and time. Al-Ghoussein writes, “the strong emphasis on longing led to a consideration of changing landscapes and ephemeral moments that are fixed in time rather than located in a specific place.”(6)

“Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography and Video,” neither exoticizes nor politicizes people living in the Arabian Gulf region; rather it provides further insights into the thoughts and psyche of a dozen artists living in this area. From the self-reflective and straightforward autobiographical photographs of Khalifa Al-Obaidly to Ebtisam Abdul Aziz’s performance-oriented photographs and single-channel video critiquing mass consumerism, this exhibition offers an alternative perspective to the media-saturated imagery of war and the Middle East that is prevalent in the minds of many westerners.

1. Author interview with Manal Al Dowayan on October 25, 2007.
2. Zakharia, Camille.. Artist Statement, Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography and Video (Doha, Qatar: Virginia Commonwealth Gallery at Qatar Gallery), 18.
3. Camille Zakharia at exhibition panel discussion on October 25, 2007.
4. Al-Thani, Roqaya. Artist Statement, Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography and Video, 41.
5. Hassan Meer at exhibition panel discussion on October 25, 2007.
6. Al-Ghoussein, Tarek. Artist Statement, Self-Representation in the Arabian Gulf: Perspectives in Photography and Video, 42.