x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Magnum photographer guides Zayed students' genealogy project

Curatorial students at Zayed University have collected their ancestral photographs for a historical exhibition, mentored by the American photojournalist Susan Meiselas.

The US photojournalist Susan Meiselas, who visited Abu Dhabi recently to conduct a workshop with students at Zayed University.
The US photojournalist Susan Meiselas, who visited Abu Dhabi recently to conduct a workshop with students at Zayed University.

It is the middle of the afternoon in Germany and Sheikh Zayed is relaxing by a lake with a group of his most trusted men, their figures strikingly reflected in the water.

This image is one of the many photographs found inside an envelope that Sheikh Zayed's granddaughter, Sheikha Mariam bint Sultan bin Zayed, recently came across in her home.

The final-year visual arts student at Zayed University says it's the most captivating photograph of the man she knew not as a public statesman, but simply as her loving grandfather.

"The picture is my favourite because they might be his entourage, but they're also his friends," she says. "It's an informal meeting in the afternoon when they would have their coffee and dessert. It's that moment of the day when you just relax." The student shared the photo with her curatorial studies classmates. Now they've pooled their ancestral photographs for a graduation exhibition next month.

The idea began in January last year, says their professor, Michele Bambling, as a "more organic and interesting way for them to tap into their own history".

Her goal is to have the students organise the exhibition, which will also incorporate a piece of art representative of each photograph. A thematic catalogue of the project will also be published, and Bambling added that money from the university's Incentive Fund would go towards installing the exhibition in the gallery.

Bambling also approached the award-winning American photojournalist Susan Meiselas to conduct a week-long workshop with the students, through aid from the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

"Susan is remarkable, accomplished and a real inspiration, especially in archiving. This is a groundbreaking experiment taking great shape," says Bambling. "The idea of gathering amateur photographs, by the people and for the people, fascinated me. The photos I've seen are different from others primarily taken by westerners, where you don't get to really see things through the eye of a local person living here."

Meiselas has been a member of the international photographic cooperative Magnum Photos since 1976, and has been contributing to the visual documentation of important historical events, including the insurrection in Nicaragua and human rights issues across South America.

One of her most celebrated achievements was the curating of a photographic history of Kurdistan, using a MacArthur Foundation grant. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, published in 1997 by Random House after Meiselas joined Human Rights Watch, highlights the plight of the people of Kurdistan struggling under Saddam Hussein's rule.

On January 23, she met the students at Zayed University, sharing her experiences and guiding them through their project. It was her third visit to the country.

"Here in the UAE, you have a strong narrative in history. Time is a powerful theme," she says. "For example, I wanted the book to bring awareness and as you move through it, you feel the time pass as black and white photos are followed by coloured ones."

Following the talk, the students shared the stories behind each of their photographs.

One student brought a picture of her father in the 1960s, leaning against a car outside their old family home. Another uncovered photographs stored inside a vintage briefcase, while one had a picture from the mid-1970s of her father outside Al Ain Museum.

"You can feel the budding possibility that some of them [the students] may be in a position of real authority to value and explore history in new ways," says Meiselas. "Michele invested in the whole term and for next year is seeding potential among many students to continue on the path of whether or not they become curatorial in their own families or in a public institution."

The students are encouraged to decide on a narrative structure for the catalogue and to link the photographs accordingly.

"It's interesting that Mariam carefully chose the ones she did. She didn't want to interrupt the sequence on an album page and dislodge it, so we talked about photographing full pages," says Meiselas.

The chosen photographs from Sheikha Mariam's collection provide a glimpse into the personal life of the Royal Family.

"My family has many formal photographs and that's what people are used to seeing. They don't know much about our personal lives, especially those of my dad, grandfather and uncles, so this is the right opportunity to show their personal photographs," she says.

Some of the photographs show Sheikh Zayed on hunting trips, having fun with his sons and friends.

"I have lots of great memories with him. I remember whenever I would say hello or goodbye to leave, he would always hold me tightly and tell me, 'Don't act so formal, you are like my daughter'," says the student. "He would tell jokes. Even in a formal atmosphere - he would laugh around just to make sure people loosened up."

Getting permission to share old family photographs was not an easy task for all the students. Salma Hashmi is still trying to persuade her grandmother to trust her with images she holds dear.

"My grandmother has many old photos, like of her father when he was in the military. Also of my grandfather who passed away and my uncles in school and around the neighbourhood," says Hashimi. "I will be seeing many for the first time and I am already 21 years old."

Although she is not enrolled in the curatorial studies programme, Hashimi was excited about joining the project and meeting Meiselas.

"Memories always have that calming feeling, so visitors to the exhibition will experience that. They will realise they may have something of similar value," she says.

Sheikha Mariam adds: "Maybe some may think this is not that important today, but in the next 15 to 20 years, it's going to be - the book, the images. This is because people are starting to forget how it was in the past." Her mother and father, she says, were supportive of the project, with Sheikh Sultan, poring over each photograph to give her the story behind it.

This is just the beginning of something much bigger, says Meiselas. The catalogue has the potential to be the first of many: "As people begin to see what they're doing, it will inspire many more."

melshoush@thenational.ae

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