The first biennial of contemporary photography from the Arab region will open in Paris next month, sponsored by the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. Gabriel Bauret, the biennial curator, was joined in a panel discussion by Vali Mahlouji, an Iranian London-based curator and critic, and Karin Adrian von Roques, a German curator with international experience in contemporary Arab and Iranian art.
The panel explored their individual awakenings to the development of a vibrant art scene in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and the issues they believe to have stunted the international appreciation of these artists, perhaps most interestingly, the influence of the market in defining trends. Distinctions were drawn (but unfortunately not fully examined) between Arab and Iranian artistic output, and many questions asked about the boundaries within which ‘Arab’ can be considered a fulfilling definition for art emerging from the region. We find these questions repeatedly posed about how to group artists working within and beyond this vast territory, often to satisfy a naïve Western gaze, and this panel was an important fixture in the Nour Festival calendar to further unpick the issues with this classification.
Vali Mahlouji was the highlight of the discussion, giving an engaging presentation on his Archaeology of the Final Decade project, a multidisciplinary endeavour that sits on the line of curation and archive to upend the notion of the photographic image as a reliable ‘witness’. Using the photographs of Kaveh Golestan’s ‘Prostitute’ series as a case study upon which to open an examination of how the historical, socio-political and even architectural narratives of a city – in this case, Tehran – and its population can be redrawn and re-politicised.
The Image Is Witness serves to bring to international attention the current surge of interest in this field of contemporary art, and we encourage any visitors to Paris in November to make a visit to the biennial itself.
This review was written by Siobhán Forshaw; the curator of a collection of Islamic and Modern Arab art based in London. She writes independently on art and culture, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa region.