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An insider’s view of the Arab world

FotoFest 2014 Biennial seeks to explain to America the cultural nuances of the region through photography and photo-related works by its artists

  • After the Vote, 2008, from the series Between Two Rivers, by Sama Al ShaibiImage Credit: Supplied
  • Metamorphosis, 2012, by Steve SabellaImage Credit: Supplied
  • Mes Arabies by Samer MohdadImage Credit: Supplied
  • Karin Adrian von Roques, lead curator of View from InsideImage Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

A spectrum of special exhibitions, cultural events and academic symposia will put the spotlight on Arab artists and the Arab world at the 15th edition of the FotoFest Biennial, to be held in Houston, Texas, from March 15 to April 27. FotoFest is the oldest photographic arts festival in the United States, and one of the leading photography biennials in the world.

Art lovers can look forward to more than 100 independently organised art exhibitions and events at various museums, art spaces, universities and public spaces across Houston at FotoFest 2014 Biennial. But the centrepiece of the event is “View from Inside”, which comprises four exhibitions showcasing video, photography and mixed-media art by contemporary Arab artists from the Middle East and North Africa.

The exhibitions feature works by 49 artists from 13 countries, presenting a broad, diverse and insider’s perspective of contemporary Arab art, society, politics and culture. Artists represented in the shows include well-known names such as Reem Al Faisal, Manal Al Dowayan, Mohammad Kazem, Sadik Alfraji, Hassan Hajjaj, Wael Shawky, Steve Sabella, Tarek Al Ghoussein and Camille Zakaria.

“FotoFest International was established in Houston in 1983 as a non-profit photographic arts and education organisation that promotes museum-quality photo-based art. Our aim is to discover and present new talent and high-quality art from around the globe that engages with the issues of our world. Our focus on Arab artists was not motivated by opportunism related to the Arab world’s prominence in the media today, but rather by a genuine conviction that the US and Western audiences should have the opportunity to hear from more voices in the region and to see the Arab world in more nuanced ways. These artists are well-known in the Arab world, and many are also known in Europe. But only a few have been seen in the US. We hope that these exhibitions will help to build new and lasting bridges between the United States and the Arab world,” says Wendy Watriss, co-founder and artistic director of FotoFest, and senior curator of the exhibitions.

FotoFest has commissioned Karin Adrian von Roques to be the lead curator for the exhibitions. The German curator is an expert on classical Islamic and contemporary Arab art, with more than twenty years of experience of working in the Middle East and North Africa. Along with Watriss, she has reviewed the work of hundreds of artists to present the best contemporary art from the Arab world. “These exhibitions are not about the curator’s voice. They are about the artists and what is important to them. And the subjects they have explored include regional and global issues such as the role of religion in an increasingly commercialised secular world; the complex cultural interactions between the West and the East; the role of women in society; the rapid social, political and economic changes in the region; and the search for identity,” von Roques says.

Free tours of the exhibitions, led by experts on Arab art, have been organised for the public. FotoFest will also publish a book with colour reproductions of the featured artworks and a DVD of video works along with essays by prominent European and Arab art experts. It has also created a curriculum for schoolchildren to accompany these exhibitions. Working with FotoFest’s year-round education programme, “Literacy Through Photography”, this project-centred curriculum, available free online, reinforces writing and visual analysis while imparting information about Arab cultures. Interactive tours for students will complement the curriculum.

The Arab artists featured in “View from Inside” will have many opportunities to showcase their work to a wide audience. Their work will be featured in FotoFest’s famous International Fine Print Auction to be held on March 24. And some will participate in the FotoFest Meeting Place portfolio reviews for artists, which bring together artists and decision-makers such as curators, gallery directors and editors for one-on-one meetings. There will also be four “Evenings with the Artist” events, which include Artist-Curator Dialogues with prominent American curators and scholars, presentation of artist books and book signings. Panels on Collecting of Arab Art and The Middle East Art Market have also been included in the biennial’s VIP Collectors Programmes to promote Arab artists.

To further engage audiences with Arab art and culture, FotoFest is collaborating with various museums, institutions and Arab organisations on a six-week public programme focusing on different aspects of the Arab world. This includes screening of Arabic films, poetry readings, music concerts, roundtable discussions, conversations with artists and academic symposia on topics such as the phenomenon of “Arabophobia”.

Prominent Arab and Western scholars, critics, arts administrators and artists will participate in these events. The programme will kick off on March 29 with a day-long conference at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). This includes lectures and roundtables on subjects such as The History of Visual Art and Photography in the Arab World; Orientalism; Gender in Arab Art; Religion; and Urban Change. MFAH is also collaborating in the Arab Film Programme featuring the screening of films and documentaries by Arab filmmakers.

In another symposium, Dr Ussama Makdisi, Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University, and Fares Al Dahdah, director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, have organised talks on “Arabophobia”. Speakers include Dr Melani McAlister, associate professor of American Studies, International Affairs, and Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, who is a scholar on the reactions of US Christians to Arabs; and Houston-based, Palestinian-American physician and poet Fady Joudah.


FotoFest is working with many galleries and cultural centres from the Middle East and around the world to organise the Arab-themed exhibitions and programmes. These include Athr gallery, Saudi Arabia; Ayyam gallery, Dubai; Rose Issa Projects, London; Edwynn Houk, New York; Atelier 21, Casablanca and Sfeir-Semler gallery, Hamburg. And the Arab Advisory Board assisting the biennial curators includes HH Sheikha Paula Mubarak Al Sabah from Kuwait; HRH Hessa Bint Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa from Bahrain; Dr Munir Jiwa, founding director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley; and Mona Khazindar, director-general of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

FotoFest is also working closely with organisations such as the Arab American Educational Foundation, Houston; Arab Cultural and Community Centre of Houston; and New York-based art groups, ArteEast and Alwan for the Arts, to create programmes such as the Arab-American Heritage Week with poetry readings and music performances, including a performance by pianist Michael Zuraw, artistic director of the Houston-based chamber music ensemble Aperio.


Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.


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Fact Box

Karin Adrian von Roques: ‘We looked for quality and authenticity’


Karin Adrian von Roques, lead curator of “View from Inside”, studied Islamic Art in Bonn, Germany, and is a well-known expert on modern and contemporary art from Arab countries. Over the past twenty years she has promoted Arab artists by curating major museum and gallery exhibitions, and has organised seminars, interviews, publications and auctions throughout the world to generate intercultural dialogue on Arab culture. She has been an art adviser and art historian to numerous museums and has worked as a special consultant for important Islamic exhibitions around the world. She spoke to us about her curatorial vision. Excerpts:

Is this a good time to highlight Arab art in the US and globally?

The museum projects in Abu Dhabi and other Gulf countries, and Art Dubai have already created greater awareness about art from the region. More European and American museums and collectors are now buying the work of Arab artists. So, this is a good time to dedicate the [FotoFest] Biennial 2014 to contemporary photography from Arab countries. We expect important collectors and curators to be here because globalisation means that people cannot ignore or exclude other cultures, and have the responsibility of learning about the art and culture of others.


Do you think the shows will help to change Western perceptions about the Arab world?

Throughout my career I have been dedicated to promoting international awareness of contemporary Arab art, because I believe that art is a strong means to create better cross-cultural understanding, and to change the negative ideas and stereotypes that Westerners unfortunately have about Arabs and Islam. And FotoFest co-founders [Wendy] Watriss and Fred Baldwin share this view. While working on this project I have seen that most Americans just do not know enough about the Middle East and North Africa, but they are open and enthusiastic to learn more about their culture and religion. Changing perceptions takes time. But I hope that this biennial and other shows like this will create better awareness and lead to change.


How did you select the artists and the artworks to be exhibited?

We looked for quality and authenticity. Over the past four years, Watriss and I went through all the material that I have collected during years of research on modern and contemporary Arab art, and looked at the work of hundreds of artists. It was important that the concept of the artist is convincing, original and independent.


Was there a conscious effort to include the 17 women artists?

Not at all. From the beginning of my career I have met so many fantastic Arab women artists, and it is just natural for me to have them in my shows. I always get a lot of stereotypical questions about Arab women, so it is good that this biennial will provide an international platform for presenting different perspectives on issues of gender.

Did you also consider Arab artists based in the US?

We wanted to focus only on Arab artists living in Arab countries. But we are in touch with the large community of Arab artists in the US.


How is the UAE represented at “View from Inside”?

I have seen the rapid development in the art scene in the UAE, and we are happy to have several prominent Emirati artists and UAE-based artists in our shows. These include Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, Khalil Abdul Wahid, Karima Al Shomely, Lamya Gargash, Mohammad Kazem, Tarek Al Ghoussein, Tammam Azzam and others. We are excited by the diversity of ideas in their work. For example Khalil Abdul Wahid is presenting a video that shows sand blowing over a street which ultimately disappears in the desert. The simple work beautifully conveys the power of nature and the folly of human beings in believing they are in control. Lamya Gargash on the other hand is showcasing a series of photographs of the majlis in Arab homes. I must also mention the highly professional galleries in the UAE whose co-operation has been invaluable to us.