A new exhibition in Liverpool explores the work of 11 photographers from across the Arab world who explore personal and collective identity.
Arab identity in political, funny and unforeseen forms on show in Liverpool
During the run of Light From the Middle East, the much-heralded photography show at London's V&A last year, the Syrian photographer Issa Touma was asked if he thought of his work as political. His answer was telling. "Everything in the Middle East can be political if you have censorship," he said of his homeland and the harassment he has faced from the Assad regime. "They do not like the freedom I have, but they also do not have much choice. I exist in some way."
It was such a powerful statement that "I exist in some way" became the guiding principle - and then the title - of a new group photography show comprising Arab artists at Liverpool's creative hub Bluecoat. The show, which opened yesterday, is both a trailblazer for next month's Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and an integral part of Liverpool's international photography festival LOOK/13, I Exist (In Some Way) features work from Touma, as well as 10 other Arab photographers, including Dubai's Lamia Gargash.
The presence of Gargash's images from her Through the Looking Glass series - a collection of portraits showing people with and without prosthetics - reveals that not all the work is as overtly political as Touma's. It is, instead, a show about Arab identity - and for the curator Sara-Jayne Parsons, that can take a variety of forms.
"The show is a challenge to typical media images of how the Middle East is portrayed," she says. "The responses from the artists here, to their daily lives, can be angry, but they can also be humorous, affectionate, enigmatic or unexpected."
The Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel's certainly falls into the humorous category. Her Mother, Daughter, Doll series explores the use of the veil through the placing of Fulla - the Middle Eastern version of Barbie - in various real-life scenarios.
"The use of dolls in this way is not exactly new, but no one's placed it in the context of Almutawakel's concerns about women's rights in Yemen," says Parsons. "We get a lot of young Arab girls coming to the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and it's important for them to see themselves reflected, to see a playful, accessible use of photography.
"I'd be delighted if a young girl from the Yemeni community here saw the exhibition and got thinking about who she was as someone growing up in Liverpool with that heritage. And maybe to try to articulate what that means in creative ways - even if it's just with a cameraphone. It's a key part of what we try to do."
Exploring identity is very much the driving force behind Lamia Gargash's series, too. "I Exist in Some Way... as a title it just seemed to complement my work so well," she says. "I'm a big fan of the great female photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin and the work they do looking at perceptions of beauty, self-esteem and how we're influenced by the media. So in a way, I was exploring my own insecurities through the people I shot in Dubai."
She did so by taking straight portraits and then exaggerating any perceived imperfections, with the use of prosthetics and make-up, for a companion image. For Gargash, it was really important to physically create these images rather than simply using Photoshop, but it meant that Through the Looking Glass became a really tough project. Some subjects actually found the process too difficult to cope with. "It takes quite a lot of guts to allow the audience to see you in that light," she says.
Still, the results are all the more captivating for it, and the images are a striking part of a show Gargash is proud to be connected with - simply because it focuses on the work rather than any homogenous group of "Arab artists".
"Really, I don't particularly like it when people call me an Arab female photographer. I want them to be interested in the images rather than the kind of person I am or where I'm from," she says. "But I do think that's happening, gradually. When I first started in Dubai over 10 years ago, you called yourself an artist and people would ask what you 'really did'. Now you can be an artist and call it a profession."
I Exist (In Some Way) runs until July 14 at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, UK; www.arabartsfestival.com
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