Mapping Sitting

On Portraiture and Photography

Paleis voor Schone Kunsten / Palais des Beaux-Arts

3/05 > 19:00
4-26/05 > Monday to Sunday > 10:00-18:00

Since 1997, the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation has been collecting, preserving and exhibiting photographic work by Arabs, both amateur and professional from yesterday and today. The archive presents itself as an alternative to western visual norms. If every image – and there are more than 50,000 of them – is without pretension – for example as a souvenir, taking a portrait, photographing a town – the way the photos are put together sets the tone. It is the map-making of an era and of a style. Mapping Sitting is the foundation’s fourth travelling and international exhibition. This time, the emphasis is on reproducing the same images (same composition, lighting and focal length) to better capture cultural, social and historical nuances, ways of seeing and of considering photography from the Arab world.

A project by : Walid Raad & Akram Zaatari

Photographs from the collection of : Fondation Arabe pour l’Image

Photographs originated from : Studio Anouchian, Tripoli (Antranik Anouchian, 1908-1991), Studio Chehrazad, Saida(Hachem el Madani, 1930-), Photo Jacques, Tripoli (Agop Kouyoumjian, 1921-), Studio Soussi, Saida (Anis el Soussi, 1910-1986 and Chafik el Soussi, 1920- )

Collections acquired : from Iraq by Yto Barrada, from Egypt & Lebanon by Akram Zaatari

Coordinators : Zeina Arida, Tamara Sawaya

Photographic printing : Agop Kanledjian

Scanning & reproduction : Nadim Zablit, Mind the gap

Technical production : Mind the gap

Digital printing : The Repro House

Production : Vereniging voor tentoonstellingen van het Paleis voor Schone Kunsten/Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts (Brussel/Bruxelles), Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (Beirut/Beyrouth), KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

Supported by : Ford Foundation, la Communauté française Wallonie-Bruxelles, Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie

Presentation : Paleis voor Schone Kunsten/Palais des Beaux-Arts, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

Mapping Sitting, a book edited by : Akram Zaatari, (Fondation Arabe pour l’Image), Zeina Maasri & Karl Bassil (Mind the gap)

Published by : Mind the gap édition & Fondation Arabe pour l’Image

Sponsors : Prince Claus Fund, Ford Foundation, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten/Palais des Beaux-Arts

International distributor : Idea books

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The exhibition Mapping Sitting brings archival collections of studio portraiture, passport photography and institutional group portraits from the Arab world. Curated by Akram Zaatari and Walid Ra'ad, who are visual artists and members of the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), Mapping Sitting seeks to ‘dissect’ forms of portraiture to discern the logic of choices photographers make in creating their images – their ‘mapping’ – of faces and places.

According to Zaatari, “we want to reveal the codes that photographers used constantly and repetitively with different clients. For example, with some studio photographers, there would always be a close-up of the client's face, a three-quarter view and a full-length shot.” Ra'ad sees Mapping Sitting and other such conceptual AIF exhibitions as necessary endeavors in creating both a contemporary Arab visual culture and an Arab understanding of the past through the images. “The works in this project share a commitment to the kind of photography that is repetitious and seemingly endless”, he says. “These images provide ways of thinking of Arab photography in culturally and socially critical terms”, rather than as discrete works of art by individual artists. Or as Zaatari playfully puts it, “it's as if you write the same postcard to all your friends and each one thinks it is a personalised message. But if someone were to collect all the postcards and put them side by side, a different 'message' would come through.” The message would speak to the purposes for which this was done, who was included and who was not, and so on.

The AIF is the first attempt in the Arab world to change the external viewpoints that largely fail to depict Arabs or Arab societies fairly. The foundation's mission is collecting, conserving and exhibiting work by Arab photographers, and the result is an alternative to the visual history defined by the West. AIF member and co-founder Fouad Elkoury explains. Prior to World War I, “you have a typology: ruins and monuments, street scenes and landscapes of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cairo and their so-called 'exotic' locals. Beginning in the 1970s”, he says, “predominantly negative stereotypes, borne by news media prevailed. And the half-century between these two eras, with all the subjects ‘in between’ and beyond the stereotypes, are scarcely represented”, says the 48-year-old photographer.

While admittedly focused on this ‘in between’, or the period from World War I to the 1970s, some of the AIF's collection dates back to the late nineteenth century – a fact which, Elkoury maintains, refutes the contention that Arabs themselves were not taking pictures locally even in the earliest days of the medium. The AIF is run by 10 Arab photographers, filmmakers and scholars who live mostly in Beirut, Paris, New York and Cairo. Nearly all have been edu-cated both in the Arab world and the West, and their bifurcated education have helped inspire their commitment to changing how modern Arab history is understood through photography. Founded in 1997, the AIF has already collected approximately 50,000 images, mostly from North Africa, the Levant and Iraq.

The first of the AIF's three major exhibitions to date, [Histoires Intimes] 1900-1960 (Intimate Stories), organised in 1998, surveyed work by previously unknown amateurs and professional photographers from Lebanon. In the early 20th century, as Arab individuals began to acquire cameras for private use, they often photographed each other according to the European stylistic photographic conventions. (I removed one sentence here) The second AIF exhibition, Cairo Portraits, showed in 1999 and 2000, and delved into commercial studio-portraiture in the Arab World. Three Armenian studio photographers – Van Leo, Alban and Arman – developed distinctive, related styles in Cairo during the 1940’s.

A third exhibition, The Vehicle: Picturing Moments of Transition in a Modernizing Societyexamined the ways the Arab world internalised notions of ‘modernity’. The show maintains that the camera itself was no less of a ‘transporting’ device than the motorcars, trains, ships and airplanes pictured in the show: the amateurs who used their Kodak box cameras at the turn of the century were creating a collective portrait of their society. “In this show”, Zaatari says, “photos of the new means of transport are used as a metaphor for a society and its people on their way to modernity”.

While AIF's exhibitions are important, they depend upon the success of the organisation's mission to collect and preserve photographs. It was on this basis that founders Fouad Elkoury, Samer Mohdad and Akram Zaatari conceived the foundation. Months later, they received a start-up award of approximately $100,000 from the European Union, and their idea became an occupation. Elkoury started close to home, with family albums and boxes that dated to the late 19th century. After several months of networking, Elkoury, Mohdad and Zaatari had persuaded a number of their colleagues to join the foundation, contribute photography from their own family collections, and help search for more. Thus family photography became the basis of the collection. While the European Union grant supported initial operating expenses, AIF’s Executive Director Zeina Arida is concentrating increasingly on soliciting Arab-based support to reduce the reliance on European and North American philanthropy. “It is beginning to be a question of ethics”, she says. “More Arabs should be involved in our activities, and this includes monetary support.”

In researching photos, AIF takes the original print or negative, makes a copy, and gives that copy to the owner of the original. “It isn't always easy to get people to part with their photographs”, says Zaatari. “They want to know why you're interested in their grandmother. We tell them, 'Yes, it's a photo of your grandmother, but it's a historical record, too.’” Although collecting and exhibiting are the centrepieces of day-to-day activities, AIF members also are finding that the foundation is becoming a crossroads of sorts, a salon for contemporary Arab photographers. “A lot of Arab photographers are contacting us”, Zaatari says. “They are interested in seeing more, and they want to communicate with other photographers or other people in the field.” In this way, the AIF is contributing to the current evolution of Arab photography and extending the limits of critical dialogue over Arab images.

(Excerpted from The Pictures Between, by Lynn Love, Saudi Aramco World, January/February 2001)

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