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In the spring of 2016, Brooklyn-based, Egyptian-American photographer Anthony Hamboussi visited the Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibition This Place, eager to view works by world-renowned photographers that he admired. But after seeing the controversial show, his 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 faced backlash for “art washing” the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and for accepting funding from organizations that support and fund Zionist causes. “It was a propaganda project,” Hamboussi told Hyperallegic. But what irked him most about the show, he said, was the total lack of representation of Palestinian or Arab photographers in an exhibition depicting their native landscapes. In response, Hamboussi has organized and curated a new exhibition featuring the photography and video works by West Asian and North African artists.
As its title intimates, Our Land focuses on the landscapes of Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; its contributing artists hail from these countries or their diasporic communities. Its aim is to reclaim the genre of landscape photography from its colonialist and Orientalist origins and to allow photographers from the region to tell their home countries’ stories as they see them.
A standout 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 Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation. “Ruins” juxtaposes images taken of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion of 1982; it also includes photographs from a 1991 expedition ElKhoury took, where he retraced Gustave Flaubert’s journey to Egypt in 1849. From the pairing of Beirut’s shattered buildings and rubble-filled streets with the awe-inspiring relics of Egypt, a question surfaces: Which ruins are to be preserved, and which removed?
This problem is at the center of an ongoing debate over the changing face of downtown Beirut. A real estate boom, aided by foreign investment, is erasing landmarks in favor of exclusive development projects for the rich. Lebanese-American photographer Manal Abu-Shaheen’s works reveal a city in which buildings blown out by wartime bombings find themselves clothed in the wall-to-wall vestments of large-scale advertising. The billboards captured by Abu-Shaheen reveal the increasing domination of the cityscape by Western ideals — of luxury, prosperity, and happiness — while at the same time they hint at how a shift to a neoliberal economy will transform this Middle Eastern city. In “Beirut/Big Ben” (2014), the colossal jeans ad dominating the image superimposes the streets of London over a cramped Beirut neighborhood in the background. In some of the billboards, advertisers explicitly evoke war themes to sell their products. An ad for Johnnie Walker places its iconic striding man logo on a bombarded bridge. (The 2006 campaign was responding to Israel’s destruction of several of the city’s main bridges.) The caption on the billboard reads: KEEP WALKING.
Images from Rhea Karam’s book Breathing Walls (2009) trace the political posters of Beirut and explore how the city’s walls serve as canvasses onto which political conflicts are mapped. The wall in “Hariri” (2007) shows peeled-off posters of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik El Hariri, while a makeshift barrier in “Red Cars” (2009) features posters of the Hezbollah party, which was suspected of orchestrating the assassination in 2005.
Egyptian artist Rana ElNemer’s photographic series The Khan (2010–2016) turns its lens on the abandoned desert town of Khan El-Azaizah, an ambitious “smart city” project that quickly deteriorated into a real estate flop. Another testimony of Egypt’s flailing economy is Youssef Chahine’s semi-documentary film Cairo As Told by Youssef Chahine (1991). The film was banned by the Egyptian government for its all too 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 tourism attraction, continue that narrative: a lonesome unemployed camel under a palm tree in a barren yard; an empty, rusted pool at the Safari Hotel Resort (both from 2016).
Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili’s photographic series Landscape of Darkness (2010) takes on the point of view of cities cloaked in a nighttime military curfew. In one image, the winding bypass roads that are designed for Israeli settlers to avoid entering Palestinian towns in the West Bank curl like a serpent. In a video recording, the night lights of the coastline city of Yaffa shimmer over the expanse of darkness covering a hilltop near the West Bank town of Birzeit, where Khalili holds his camera — the video was taken during the Israeli incursion of 2002, on a night when the artist and his friend had broken curfew and snuck out. The far-off lights of Jaffa — a city that Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed to enter — beckoned so temptingly that they decided to walk all the way there. But as dawn broke and they saw more clearly just how far away they still were, they realized that their quest for freedom was an illusion prompted by a more forgiving landscape of darkness.
The restrictions imposed on Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the West Bank are also addressed in activist-photographer Aisha Mershani’s series Apartheid Wall (2003–2005). Mershani, born of 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 fieldwork, only to realize that there was no conflict at all, but instead a violent Israeli occupation,” she writes in the catalogue. It was then that she picked up a camera for the first time to follow the popular resistance against the 26-feet-high wall that Israel built around and between Palestinian cities. Much like Khalili’s, although more direct and confrontational, her images show the fragmentation of space and time that characterize the Palestinian condition.
The theme of displacement cuts through the entire exhibition, but it takes on a less somber point of view in the works of Bahraini photographer Camille Zakharia and Saudi Moath Alofi. Zakharia’s Al Bar series (2008–2016) captures an arid tent city that stands empty for half of the year due to the punishing desert heat. When the weather cools off, the colorful tents are inhabited by people of all walks of life who seek a closer connection to nature, and a refuge from the gulf’s blustering consumerist culture. Alofi’s The Last Tashahhud project (2015) traces the path leading to Al Madinah Al Munawara, the holiest city for Muslims after Mecca, through the mosques encountered on the way. These temples — often little more than stucco boxes crowned with miniature minarets — are the antithesis of the most famous mosques of the region. It’s a geometry not often associated with the Islamic temple —all ninety-degree angles and meager flat roofs — but Alofi captures their unlikely beauty with reverence.
In a better world, an exhibition like Our Land shouldn’t be an oppositional project with a corrective statement. This comprehensive survey, although modest in production value and physically remote (approximately an hour and a half by car from downtown Manhattan), leaves the Brooklyn Museum and other institutions in New York a model to follow.
Our Land runs through March 13 at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery (on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury, Long Island, New York). The exhibition was curated by Anthony Hamboussi.