In Houston, FotoFest offers a lens on the Arab world

Event is perhaps the largest exhibition to date of contemporary Arab photography and mixed media

HOUSTON — Lana Kesbeh, a 23-year-old nursing student, admired a photograph of a young man in hot pink shades, velvet slippers and a vibrantly patterned suit sitting on a colorful box before an equally eccentric background of turquoise zigzags. “It’s really hip, it’s really chic, it’s really cool,” she said of the photo, by London-based Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj.

That portrait, “Joe Casely-Hayford,” is one of hundreds of images on display as part of the biennial FotoFest, the oldest and largest photography exhibit in the United States. This year’s exhibition, “View From Inside,” showcases works by Arab artists from the Middle East and North Africa that explore, along with lighter topics, religion and faith, the status of women, social and environmental change and recent political events, including the Arab Spring. Some in the art world say it is the largest display of contemporary Arab art ever.

Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, who founded FotoFest, have a history of using photography to bring difficult political and social situations into the spotlight. Baldwin, who grew up in Savannah, Ga., during the 1960s, developed close ties to the civil rights movement, eventually photographing Martin Luther King Jr. and the Ku Klux Klan. Watriss worked as a stringer at Newsweek and as a freelancer at The New York Times in Vienna and later documented the effects of Agent Orange’s use in the Vietnam War. In 1971 the two formed a professional partnership, traveling through Texas to photograph and write about rural communities. Their partnership turned romantic, and the pair eventually married.

“[Photography] brings a language about the realities of the world into our own lives and makes us realize what other people are going through, either in our own societies or other societies, and in that process it brings a sense of humanity and caring,” said Watriss. “It doesn’t allow us to be isolated and comfortable in our own lives.” 

They settled in Houston in the 1980s, in part because of the support of art patrons Jean and Dominique de Menil, who rented a house to the couple. In 1983, Baldwin and Watriss founded FotoFest, and in 1986 they held their first citywide photography festival in Houston. “It’s a very open and creative city in an entrepreneurial sense, and it has the financial means to help us start and maintain an organization like FotoFest,” said Watriss of the city.

The roots of "View From Inside” go back to 2005, when Baldwin and Watriss took “Nazar” — an exhibition of photographs of the Arab world first shown at the Noorderlicht Photofestival in the Netherlands — to Houston. The show met with a positive response, spurring them to want to organize an exhibit that would take a broader look at art from the Arab world. The two were introduced to a curator and expert on Arab art, Karin Adrian von Roques. Over three years, von Roques showed them the work of various Arab artists. “We were very excited by what we saw,” said Watriss. “It was strong, very vital. It was an inside look at Arab culture, very intelligent and knowledgeable artists, creative people. We had looked at over 200 artists’ work and decided that the collection of work was strong enough to carry a whole biennial.”

Von Roques joined as the lead curator, and whittled down the selection to the 49 contemporary Arab artists from 13 countries in the Middle East and Africa who are featured in FotoFest. The exhibition runs through April 28.

FotoFest has expanded in recent years to showcase more than just photography. Spread across four venues in Houston — Spring Street Studios, Winter Street Studios, Silver Street Studios and Williams Tower — FotoFest 2014 displays a multidisciplinary approach to contemporary Arab art, including video, illustration, painting, photography and sculpture.

One installation, by Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, consists of various books on the Sept. 11 attacks surrounding two large copies of the Quran; when lit by a spotlight, they cast a shadow resembling the New York skyline with the twin towers. Another piece, “Syria Next Spring,” by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam, shows a grenade covered in a rainbow of tiny flowers. “Out of Line,” a series by Saudi Arabian artist Jowhara AlSaud, is a colorful look at youth culture that shows illustrations of faceless young people having a good time.

Sadik Alfraji, a Netherlands-based multimedia artist from Iraq, contributed “The House That My Father Built.” The touching yet somber video piece about his experience returning to his family’s home in Baghdad after more than 20 years of exile fuses painting with photography and animation. “It was just a very silent moment, very empty moment,” recalled Alfraji. “There’s only the memories. All the things around me is disappeared, and all the memories go up.”

Sama Alshaibi, a half-Iraqi, half-Palestinian artist who teaches photography at the University of Arizona, displayed a series of black-and-white self-portraits wearing a hijab in different circumstances. One image, “Say Nothing,” depicts her with marks that give the appearance that her mouth has been sealed shut. Another shows her raising an ink-stained finger, to symbolize voting in Iraq. “They’ve always voted,” said Alshaibi. “They didn’t have no one to vote for, only Saddam [Hussein], but they always voted. It’s talking about having that idea of bringing supposed democracy to Iraq, what’s happened to them and especially to women.”

Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein, who teaches at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, showcased a series of self-portraits with a green piece of fabric meant to represent the borders of the Palestinian Mandate and 1947’s United Nations Resolution 181, which proposed a partition of Palestine. “It has to do with how delicate the material is, that it’s transient,” said Al-Ghoussein. “It’s all those whole things and taking on how borders of the world should function.”

Alshaibi believes that FotoFest will show audiences just how varied and complex artists from the region are. “I hope that people that come here, they get a larger perspective of how strong artists from the Arab-speaking world are and how equal, if not surpassing in some ways, that they are with their counterparts from anywhere and that it’s not monosubjects of politics and war — that each artist has [a] way of doing it,” she said.

Watriss is keen on taking “View From Inside” to other parts of the country and the world. “I think it’s very important for people outside the Arab world to understand that people within that world, of that world, are reflecting on that world in very intelligent and very analytic ways,” she says. It remains a challenge for Arab artists, she said, to establish themselves “as figures to be taken seriously in an international context in what are still the established centers of the art world, which is Western Europe and the United States.”

For Kesbeh, the experience highlighted a different aspect of her heritage. “I felt that it gave recognition to another part of Arab and Muslim culture that isn’t depicted in mainstream media,” she said.

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