View From Inside: Contemporary Arab Photography, Video and Mixed Media Art

View From Inside: Contemporary Arab Photography, Video and Mixed Media ArtAuthors:Karin Adrian von Roques, Claude W. Sui
Published:17 March 2014
Publisher:Schilt Publishing & Gallery
Paperback:340 pages

Review by Amelia Smith

"As seen from its history, the lands of the Arab world have never been isolated from the outside world. For centuries, they have been the centre of it."

In one photograph three women wearing loose abayas, with camouflage and polka dot design, relax on motorbikes in the alleyway of an ancient medina. The frame of the photograph is formed from walnut wood and tins of tomatoes, the labels written in Arabic. The women pictured work as henna tattoo artists in a tourist square and navigate Marrakech on their bikes.

In another picture a man wearing an ostentatious orange and blue suit teamed with pink sunglasses, matching slippers and a woolly hat poses for the camera in a blue room. The pattern of the set, like the frame, looks like mosaics one would expect to find in and around Morocco, but with a modern twist.

The images are the work of artist Hassan Hajjaj; dubbed Morocco's Andy Warhol, Hajjaj's portraits bring an element of the contemporary to old-world Marrakesh, a city more often associated with sheesha pipes, Persian carpets and snake charmers. They combine the club, hip-hop and reggae scenes of London (where he lived from a young age) with his heritage; he picked up the tomato tins in a North African market.

Hajjaj's pictures counter the western projection that the Orient is a 'backward' and one where modernisation is capable of taking place. His work is part of a new book, 'View From Inside: Contemporary Photography, Video and Mixed Media Art,' published by Schilt publishing. It draws together 200 images by 49 artists from across North Africa and the Middle East who address issues from self-identity and women in society to revolution and religion. The pictures tell the stories of significant social events and personal experiences of the Arab world, in the words of the artist themselves.

Images that may be more familiar to the reader than Hajjaj's, or ones they may more closely associate with photography from the Middle East, is the work of Samer Mohdad.

In a picture from the black and white series, 'War Children' - taken in West Beirut and South Lebanon between 1985 and 1992 - a young child smiles down at a boy from a half-destroyed balcony in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. It was taken in 1989 on the frontline between east and west Beirut towards the end of the civil war.

In the next image three children gather at the PLO Lion's Club in the Ain el-Helweh refugee camp near Saida, South Lebanon, to learn Debkeh a traditional Palestinian dance. The final image depicts a child looking up at adults' legs at a dinner for the Syrian Nationalist Party in Mount Lebanon.

Mohdad was born in a mountain village in Lebanon in 1964; by the time the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975 he had lived very little of his childhood. The images taken in this series reflect the feelings and encounters he experienced as a child, and a way to express his fears and worries. Rather than snapping the images of war and conflict other photojournalists were taking, Mohdad captures normal people caught up in an abnormal conflict.

Mohdad, and the other artists that make up 'View from Inside,' reflect a generation that grew up at a time when digital technology swept the Arab world and have seen it transformed into an essential medium of creative expression. They are also part of a generation whose work has only become widely respected recently.

As Karin Adrian von Roques, an expert on classical Islamic art and contemporary Arab art and the lead essayist for 'Inside View' points out, contemporary art from Arab countries has only recently gained traction in the international sphere; in the lead up to the late nineties many art dealers believed it was simply a pastiche of western art, or even that an art market did not exist in this region.

Museums and art projects which have mushroomed in the Gulf have done much to change this attitude, as has the Arab Spring which dominated the headlines and attracted the attention of many. Observers who did not necessarily know anything about the Arab world before became inspired to collect the art that came out of it.

'View From Inside' is a beautifully produced book that recognises the range of artwork being produced in the Middle East. Whilst the themes covered inside may be familiar to the reader, the artists' approach to them are not necessarily so. Yet rather than this diversity being a new phenomenon, it is the continuation of an eclectic Arab art scene that has spanned generations.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor