Photography exhibition fixes the failure of a mainstream museum

Camille Zakharia, “Al Bar 5, Kingdom of Bahrain” (2008-2016) (all images courtesy of Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, unless otherwise noted)

In the spring of 2016, Brooklyn-based Egyptian-American photographer Anthony Hamboussi visited the Brooklyn Museum to view the exhibit This place, eager to see the works of world-renowned photographers he admired. But after seeing the controversial show, her excitement quickly gave way to anger.

This place was an exhibition on Israel and Palestine featuring works by 12 photographers, including Josef Koudelka, Stephen Shore and Rosalind Fox Solomon. The show has faced backlash for “artwashing” the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for accepting funding from organizations that support and fund Zionist causes. “It was a propaganda project,” Hamboussi told Hyperallegic. But what annoyed him most about the exhibit, he said, was the complete lack of representation of Palestinian or Arab photographers in an exhibit depicting their native landscapes. In response, Hamboussi curated and curated a new exhibition featuring the photographic and video works of artists from West Asia and North Africa.

Exhibition view of Our earth at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery

As its title suggests, Our earth focuses on the landscapes of Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; its contributing artists are from these countries or their diasporic communities. Its aim is to reclaim the genre of landscape photography from its colonialist and orientalist origins and allow photographers in the region to tell the stories of their homelands as they see them.

One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is Lebanese photographer Fouad ElKhoury’s three-channel video projection “Ruins (2011). ElKhoury is a pioneer of modern Arab photography and the co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, based in Beirut. “Ruins” juxtaposes images taken from Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion; it also includes photographs from an expedition led by ElKhoury in 1991, where he retraced Gustave Flaubert’s trip to Egypt in 1849. From the association of the broken buildings and rubble-filled streets of Beirut with the impressive relics of the ‘Egypt, a question arises: which ruins are to be preserved, and which removed?

Fouad ElKhoury, video excerpts from “Ruines” (2011)

Fouad ElKhoury, video excerpts from “Ruines” (2011)

This problem is at the center of an ongoing debate on the evolution of downtown Beirut. A real estate boom, aided by foreign investment, is erasing landmarks in favor of exclusive development projects for the rich. The works of Lebanese-American photographer Manal Abu-Shaheen reveal a city in which buildings blown up by wartime bombardment find themselves clad in the wall-to-wall garb of large-scale advertising. Billboards captured by Abu-Shaheen reveal the growing dominance of the cityscape by Western ideals – of luxury, prosperity and happiness – while hinting at how the shift to a neoliberal economy will transform this Middle Eastern city. In “Beirut/Big Ben” (2014), the colossal jeans advertisement that dominates the image superimposes the streets of London with a cramped district of Beirut in the background. In some billboards, advertisers explicitly evoke war themes to sell their products. An advertisement for Johnnie Walker places its iconic walking man logo on a bombed-out bridge. (The 2006 campaign was in response to Israel’s destruction of several of the city’s major bridges.) The caption on the billboard reads: KEEP WALKING.

Manal Abu-Shaheen, “Johnnie Walker Post-War Advertisment, Beirut, Lebanon, 2006-2014” (2014) (image courtesy of the artist)

Images from Rhea Karam’s book Breathing walls (2009) trace Beirut’s political posters and explore how the city’s walls serve as a canvas on which political conflicts are mapped. The wall in ‘Hariri’ (2007) shows peeling posters of slain former Prime Minister Rafik El Hariri, while a makeshift barrier in ‘Red Cars’ (2009) features posters of the Hezbollah party, suspected of having orchestrated the assassination. in 2005.

Rhea Karam, “Hariri, Lebanon”, (2007)

Photographic series by Egyptian artist Rana ElNemer the khan (2010-2016) turns its lens to the abandoned desert town of Khan El-Azaizah, an ambitious “smart city” project that quickly deteriorated into a real estate flop. Another testament to Egypt’s faltering economy is Youssef Chahine’s semi-documentary film Cairo told by Youssef Chahine (1991). The film was banned by the Egyptian government for its overly realistic portrayal of the hardships of the city’s residents. Hambousssi’s own images of the decrepit resorts of Nuweiba in the Sinai Desert, a once-thriving tourist attraction, continue this narrative: a lone jobless camel under a palm tree in a barren yard; an empty, rusty pool at the Safari Hotel Resort (both from 2016).

Anthony Hamboussi, “Pool at the Safari Hotel Resort” Nuweiba, Sinai, Egypt (2016)

Photographic series by Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili landscape of darkness (2010) adopts the point of view of cities surrounded by a nocturnal military curfew. In one image, winding bypass roads designed for Israeli settlers to avoid entering Palestinian towns in the West Bank coil like a snake. In a video recording, the nighttime lights of the coastal town of Yaffa shimmer against the expanse of darkness covering a hillside near the West Bank town of Birzeit, where Khalili holds his camera – the video was taken during the Israeli incursion in 2002, on a night when the artist and his friend broke curfew and slipped away. The distant lights of Jaffa – a city Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed to enter – beckoned them so temptingly that they decided to walk there. But as dawn broke and they saw more clearly how far they still were, they realized their quest for freedom was an illusion brought on by a more forgiving landscape of darkness.

Yazan Khalili, “30’/f5” Beirut, West Bank, Palestine, (2010)

Restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank are also addressed in the series by activist-photographer Aisha Mershani apartheid wall (2003–2005). Mershani, born to a Moroccan father and a Jewish mother, produced her work during a transformative visit to Palestine in 2003 as part of her peace studies. “I traveled to the Middle East to conduct field research, only to find that there was no conflict at all, but rather a violent Israeli occupation,” she wrote in the catalog. It was then that she took up a camera for the first time to follow the popular resistance against the 26-foot-tall wall that Israel has built around and between Palestinian towns. Like Khalili’s, although more direct and confrontational, his images show the fragmentation of space and time that characterizes the Palestinian condition.

Aisha Marshani, “A Day in the Life of the Wall”, (2005) Abu Dis, Occupied Palestinian Territory

The theme of displacement runs through the entire exhibition, but it takes on a less gloomy perspective in the works of Bahraini photographer Camille Zakharia and Saudi Arabian Moath Alofi. At Zakharia Al Bar The series (2008-2016) captures an arid tent city that remains empty for half the year due to the sweltering desert heat. When the weather cools, the colorful tents are inhabited by people from all walks of life who seek a closer connection to nature and a refuge from the gulf’s swaggering consumer culture. from Alofi The Last Tashahhud project (2015) traces the path to Al Madinah Al Munawara, the holiest city for Muslims after Mecca, through the mosques encountered on the way. These temples – often simple stucco boxes crowned with miniature minarets – are the antithesis of the region’s most famous mosques. It’s a geometry not often associated with the Islamic temple – all the ninety-degree angles and skinny flat roofs – but Alofi captures their improbable beauty with reverence.

Moath Alofi, “Last Tashahud v2 (39)” (2015) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

In a better world, an exhibition like Our earth should not be an opposition draft with a corrective statement. This comprehensive survey, though modest in production value and physically remote (about an hour and a half by car from downtown Manhattan), leaves the Brooklyn Museum and other New York institutions a model to follow.

Our earth runs through March 13 at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery (on the SUNY Old Westbury campus, Long Island, New York). The exhibition was curated by Anthony Hamboussi.

Tracey L. Sweeney