Arabs have been exoticized and romanticized since the 1700s, when The Thousand and One Nights was translated into French and English from the original Arabic. In America today, they are frequently demonized. Presenting a more diverse, realistic picture of the Arab people is the aim of the show "NAZAR: Photographs from the Arab World," organized by FotoFest. Nazar is an Arabic word; its meanings include "seeing" and "insight."
The show is divided into three parts. A minor component is "A Look Back," a DVD of vintage images from various photo archives, on view at FotoFest's Vine Street Studios. The strongest section, also up at Vine Street, is "Arab Eyes," an exhibition of provocative works by Arab photographers. The least satisfying of the three shows, "Western Eyes," on view at the Art Car Museum, features works about the Arab world by non-Arab photographers.
Actually, "Western Eyes" does include one really intriguing work: a grid of photographs featuring defaced paintings of Saddam Hussein taken by the Iranian (i.e., Persian) photographer Abbas. But the rest is by and large mildly interesting photojournalistic fare. And when you get to the "Western" photographers who hail from farther afield, the images reveal how our preconceptions about Arabs shape what we see. Women in headscarves soldering circuit boards at a factory or sitting at a computer are strange and fascinating to the Western photographers, while Arabs fail to see anything incongruous. A photo of women clad in traditional regalia in a car on their way to a folklore festival looks foreign and exotic to us, as does an image of a city square filled with the butts of men kneeling for Friday prayers. In a way, these photographers are carrying on a tradition that goes back to 19th-century "Orientalist" painters, who were fond of "exotic" subjects such as scantily clad harem girls.
"Western Eyes" makes for an interesting contrast with "Arab Eyes." As you might imagine, Arab photographers have a much more nuanced image of their own culture. For instance, Rawi Hage hones in on class distinctions among wealthy Lebanese and their servants in his photo series "Developing and the Underdeveloped." In the style of Mexican photographer Daniela Rossell's Ricas y Famosas, his subjects pose in overdecorated living rooms, attended by their servants. In one photo, a young woman sits on the edge of a velvet love seat, while standing attentively beside her in a pink maid's uniform is a girl almost her own age.
Providing a nearly exact opposite vision, Farida Hamak photographs Shiite refugees still living in the once-grand, now-dilapidated Lebanese palace where they sought refuge decades ago. The civil war ended in 1989, but they have nowhere else to go. Cast-off furniture is clustered in formerly elegant rooms. In one photo, a wry nod to the exotic image of the odalisque, a middle-aged woman in a floral headscarf and a log-red cloak reclines on a dilapidated couch. She leans coquettishly on one arm, her tiny plump feet protruding from the hem of the dress.
Meanwhile, Greta Torossian gives us the cityscape of Beirut in lush, large-format color photographs. Set against bright blue skies are skyscrapers so riddled with munitions fire that it looks like giant rats have gotten at them. The facades of wrecked art nouveau buildings vie with much more ancient ruins. Identical buildings are shown side by side, one refurbished, the other still bearing the scars of civil war. In another image, an optimistic mural is placed in front of a ruined facade. In Beirut, history, war and resurrection coexist.
In his series "La Salle de Classe," Moroccan artist Hicham Benohoud photographs his students using everyday school supplies; the resulting images, shot in the classroom, are surreal. In one photograph, the head of a boy seems to grow out of the top of a levitating white mountain. In the background, students work at their desks, oblivious to what's going on over their heads. The low-tech special effect was achieved by stacking desks and swathing the kid in a huge crumpled sheet of white paper. In other images, the students pose under institutional ceiling lamps that trail sculptures made of string, wire and masking tape. The deadpan presentation and the students' creative use of materials translate into fascinating images.
In a series of poignant, wrenching images that cross over from journalism into art, Palestinian photojournalist Ahmed Jadallah shows us what life is like for children in the Gaza Strip. Since September 29, 2000, the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, 118 Israeli children and 680 Palestinian children have been killed. In Jadallah's world, people carry dead and injured children, children peer between the legs of adults and down into the grave of a suicide bomber, boys hold rocks as they face down tanks, and a girl tries to extract a toy from the rubble of her house, which was demolished by Israeli bulldozers.
Jadallah's most heartbreaking image shows a small girl in a too-big jacket, her anguished, crying face pressed against the corner of a wall. The body of her little brother has just been brought home. Her name is Lena, and her brother Mouwan Rohmi was killed with 11 other Palestinians during an incursion of Israeli troops deep into Gaza City, part of Sharon's get-tough security policy -- two days before an Israeli election.
Finally, in a panorama triptych, Noel Jabbour shows us the much-talked-about Abu Dis wall built by Israel through Palestinian territory. Big slabs of concrete look like a giant suburban fence as they snake through and brutally sever the countryside. In his image, Jabbour raises the question of who is locked out and who is locked in. A fellow visitor to the exhibition looked at the image and said, "Oh, yeah, that's that wall they were talking about." Turning to me, he said, "Kinda brings it home, doesn't it?"
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events