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The Beirut-based Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (FAI) is unique in its mission to collect, preserve, and interpret photographic works from the Middle East and North Africa. Its remarkable archive - including over 75,000 images going back to 1860
remains defiantly contemporary. Ten international members, all artists, filmmakers, and writers, curate the photographs within the complexities of today’s art world. From anonymous snapshots of Palestinian life in the 1920s to 1940s, experimental portraits by Armenian-Egyptian studio photographers, the FAI’s collection sings with timely significance. Together, the images create a vision of the twentieth century Arab street.
The Foundation recently moved to new offices on the tenth floor of the Starco building in the heart of Beirut. The location throws into sharp relief the links between historical and contemporary, private snaps, and public politics. Huge windows look out onto a Beirut that - as media hyperbole would have it - is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the civil war. New downtown development is engraved with architectural scars – swathes of razed empty space, pocked and crumbling low-rise buildings.
Inside, over 75,000 photographs from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Senegal, and Mexico are carefully filed in acid-free archival boxes in a temperature-controlled conservation room. Every aspect of photography is here: 1950s studio portraits taken against ‘exotic’ backdrops; documentary images; hundreds of beach and street portraits by itinerant 'photo surprise' photographers; historically important documents. The thread of Palestinian resistance runs through snaps and portraits, from Palestine in 1948 to Lebanon’s Sour in 1980.
Director Zeina Arida notes that photographs are chosen for their artistry rather than their historical value, with equal attention given to the work of amateurs and professionals. ‘They tell us about the social environment and life of the period in which they were taken, as well as the photographic practices of the times’, she adds. The members take research trips, rooting out snaps from forgotten basement archives and dusty family collections. As news of the collection spread, prominent Middle Eastern families and collectors donated key images.
The FAI decided early on to concentrate on images taken from the ‘inside out’, rather than those by visiting European photographers. Armenian-Egyptian Van Leo’s practice is a window to the myriad characters that populated 1940s-70s Cairo. In his studio, glamorous film stars and dancers took turns with Scottish soldiers and local intellectuals. Latif el Ani worked as a photographer for Iraq Petroleum in the 1960s. On the side, he took his own documentary, still life and architectural images. ‘Feast day in Baghdad’ is a fantastically composed, joyful image that resembles a film-still in its depth. Itinerant Hashem al Madani took hundreds of photographs in his hometown of Saida, south Lebanon, from the 1940s on; at Eid, young men would pose besides parked cars or stroll in groups across the town’s British-built concrete bridge.
Over the last few years, the members have mounted touring exhibitions and published books, showcasing aspects of the collection. So far, twelve thousand images have been digitized in a bespoke database which will be launched online in December this year, enabling anyone, anywhere, to access, search and browse the photographs.
The Foundation’s coming of age could not be timelier. European audiences are thirsty for a complex, historical version of the Middle East – one that counteracts sensational news reports and simplistic political statements.
But the collection cannot be reduced to the politics of right place, right time. The presentation of the images in art galleries and publications raises fascinating questions concerning the increasing intimacy between art and commercial/amateur photography. The FAI’s work also chimes with debates concerning the politics and practicalities of an archive. Further four exhibitions are due to open in Europe and South America this year. What we’ve seen of the Foundation so far is merely the tip of the iceberg.
‘Possible narratives’ at VideoBrasil Festival
22 September - 19 October 2003
SESC Pompéia- Galpão, São Paulo, Brazil
Musée Nicéphore Niepce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France
18 October 2003 - 1 February 2004
‘Synopsis III - Fiction and Reality’ at the National Museum of Contemporary Art
12 November 2003 - 8 February 2004
Cultural Centre Juan de Mariana, organized by the European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam and the Escuela de Traductores, Toledo, Spain
14 November - 20 December 2003
Freelance writer based in Dubai, her main interests include contemporary visual art and film in the Middle East.