Conceived by contemporary artists Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari working with the archives of the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation (AIF), Mapping Sitting explores how photographic portraits operated in the Arab world over the past century. Raad and Zaatari’s projected and photographic installations on view in the exhibition highlight four distinct practices: 1) identity photos; 2) the Middle Eastern tradition ofphoto surprise; 3) itinerant photography; and 4) institutional group portrait photography. Collectively, the images convey the pluralistic and multifaceted communities captured by indigenous photographers—images far different from photos of the region circulating widely in the popular press today. InMapping Sitting, Raad and Zaatari reveal how Arab portrait photography not only pictured individuals and groups, but also functioned as commodity, luxury item, and adornment. Concentrating on commercial images, the exhibition not only raises questions about portrait photography in the Middle East, but also about portraiture, photography, and visual culture in general.
The history of photography in the Arab world is not well documented. Introduced to the Middle East by colonial occupiers in the mid-19th century, the medium was, at first, dominated by Western practitioners who focused primarily on antiquities, regional landscape, and exotic traditions. Local photographic production soon flourished: the first Armenian-organized photography workshop took place in Jerusalem in the 1860s. After the introduction of the easy-to-use Kodak box camera in 1888, the appetite for photographic images increased dramatically. In the following decades photography continued to expand, especially around the turn of the 20thcentury, when Armenian exiles, many of them trained as photographers, began fleeing Turkey for neighboring countries.
As photography spread throughout Middle Eastern culture, modernization was transforming the region. The social, political, and economic lives of the emerging nation-states gave rise to liberation movements along with an evolving awareness of geography and identity. Modern urban planning was implemented, labor and women’s movements developed, and literary and artistic forms focused on identity as the central issue in developing new socio-political realities. Contrary to Western images of the Arab world, which often depicted marginalized or dehumanized subjects, photographs by indigenous Middle Eastern residents captured quotidian lives in these changing communities.
A media artist based in New York and Beirut, and creator of the innovative project known as The Atlas Group, Walid Raad is Assistant Professor of Art at Cooper Union. Akram Zaatari lives and works in Beirut, and has made more than 30 videos, including This Day (2003), How I Love You (2001), and Her + Him Van Leo (2001). Zaatari is a co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation; Raad sits on its board.