In the contemporary press, photographs of Arabs typically reinforce clichés about a distant culture’s dangerous character. We’re shadowed by images of the gaunt fanatic Osama. We come upon heaps of dead terrorists, women wrapped in burkas, and Saudi fat cats toying with the oil market. For decades, Yasser Arafat’s disturbing face dominated the mental image that Westerners have of Arabs. He was a man, his pictures seemed to suggest, who’d slip a dagger between your ribs before you knew it. (The hopes for peace raised by Arafat’s death may owe less to rational analysis than to widespread relief that, at last, the world will be free of that face.) Although some photographic clichés contain a measure of truth about Muslim zealotry, they also diminish any sensation of shading and subtlety in another culture. They dehumanize the mass of Arabs, concealing as much as they reveal. They’re a cultural chador.
I can easily imagine a contemporary artist, disturbed by this situation, attacking such representations. A particularly wise artist of this stripe might also parody the Arab portrayal of the West. But the focus would, in any case, be upon misrepresentation. In “Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography,” which opened last week at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University, Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari have done something that is unexpected in today’s art world. Instead of directly challenging the view of Arabs presented in the Western media, they have chosen to display imagery that emerged from within the Arab world itself. Using as their treasure chest the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, a large archive of mostly commercial photographs taken throughout the twentieth century in Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, they have created an insider’s view that usefully complicates and enriches the Arab picture.
Raad and Zaatari have drawn upon four different strands of Arab commercial photography—the I.D.’s used for passports, licenses, and official documents; pictures from a genre called “photo-surprise,” in which photographers snap pedestrians on the street in the hope that they will then order prints; images from itinerant photographers who began working in Arab regions after the invention of photography; and institutional group portraits. The centerpiece of the show is a vast, glittering grid of thousands of little I.D. photos ranging in date from 1935 to 1970. (They are from the Studio Anouchian, which was located in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.) This mural-size work embodies the tension between the general and the idiosyncratic. If you stand back, the faces are lost in the mass, though even this mass has a flickering variety. If you move forward, you begin to pick out individuals, some of whom look like they might live next door. Within this array, the artists have established small thematic clusters, some based on coloring and others on identity. You’ll find groups of black-suited businessmen, youngish girls, military men. The boundaries between the clusters are vague, however, in order to emphasize the edgy movement within the population. Some Muslim women wear scarves, but the most covered-up women are, in fact, Christian nuns.
Both Raad and Zaatari have strong links to Lebanon (Raad divides his time between New York and Beirut, and Zaatari lives in Beirut), traditionally one of the most secular, Westernized, and heterogeneous areas of the Middle East. They appear comfortable with the idea of Arab flux. In the section of the show concerned with surprise photography, they have created a fast-moving filmed collage of the Arab street that, like every vital city, is a constant blur in which people—a woman with a child . . . a bicyclist . . . a couple of businessmen—come into momentary focus and then subside into the crowd. Inevitably, you will wonder what happened to the very people you glimpse, given the political nightmare to come.
The most telling part of the show is a series of photographs that the photographer Hashem el Madani took of people he had come to know well in the southern Lebanese town of Sidon. In one series from the fifties, he depicted acquaintances riding a ski lift during the summertime. (Westerners will think, Arabs ski?) In another, he photographed people swimming and posing in their bathing suits on the seashore. (Westerners will think, Arabs swim?) The bathers, who are probably unaccustomed to the camera, appear painfully awkward and vulnerable. The images are so ordinary—beautifully and surprisingly ordinary.