By Daniel Berndt
In January 2021, renowned Lebanese artist and film producer Akram Zaatari was invited by VCUarts Qatar to present a Wavelength talk online. The important mission and projects of the Arab Image Foundation co-founded by Akram Zaatari are highlighted here in this essay by collaborator and curator Daniel Berndt.
It has been about twenty years since Lebanese photographers Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad, together with Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, decided to create an organization with the aim to preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora.
In 1997 the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) began to operate officially as a nonprofit organization in Beirut. It was conceived as an initiative to gather knowledge and promote awareness about the region’s photographic heritage through the location, collection, and conservation of photographs. The AIF now holds a collection of more than 600,000 photographs from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, as well as Mexico, Senegal, and Argentina, dating from the mid-nineteenth century and onwards (ref.1).
Curatorial work defines the mission of the AIF not only in the sense that it is safekeeping and managing a collection, but also in that it has always sought to make the collection visible to the public. One major tool has been an online image database, which makes approximately 20,000 photographs accessible. Another central medium of display is the exhibition format. Since its inception, the AIF has produced fifteen exhibitions that have traveled worldwide, often accompanied by comprehensive publications.
In the context of the AIF, however, curating or the curatorial in general, goes beyond the preservation and display of a photographic collection (ref.2). The mission of the AIF and the projects it generates are informed by a strong discursive-educational stance, while at the same time the foundation’s members often question and challenge conventional curatorial practices. Apart from gathering and disseminating knowledge, they also critically reflect on their role as knowledge producers and the possibilities, as well as the responsibility, that comes with that kind of agency.
In the light of the colonial past of the Middle East, the Arab Image Foundation and its mission can surely be regarded as an effort on the part of its members to come to terms with their own history by studying the visual culture of the region, represented through vernacular photography. One of the major goals of the AIF is to look at history in general, and the history of photography specifically, from a non-Western-centric point of view. However, the AIF was also established in response to the dearth of cultural institutions and museums after the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990). Only a few years into a fragile state of peace in the mid-nineties that was still marked by tensions, in a city that had been massively destroyed by bombs and military clashes, the AIF was one of the first projects initiated by individuals of the civic society, who—despite a general lack of state funding—sought to create a new cultural infrastructure in Lebanon.
The core of its collection is the result of the individual research the AIF members undertook based on their own interests: some were focusing on a particular genre or specific localities, while others were especially interested in the work of specific studio photographers. In the years between 1998 and 2002, the founding members Zaatari and Elkoury went on “field trips” throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, contacting families which, over generations, had been rooted in the social upper class. They did this on the assumption that wealthier people could afford to be photographed as far back as the nineteenth century, when photography was still a luxury for most. Later they also discovered that often one family member would keep all of the family photos and hand them down to other members of the next generation. Consequently, they were able to locate a large number of images and gather information on the photographers that made them in a relatively short time. They either acquired those photographs or exchanged them for exact reproductions of the “originals.”
During their research trips, Zaatari and Elkoury also conducted numerous interviews with the owners and photographers, which were recorded on video and audiotape to annotate the prints, negatives, stereographs, and glass plates they collected. Other AIF members, like Yto Barrada and Lara Baladi, did this under similar premises in Senegal, across the Maghreb, and in Iraq. Yet later on, with the increasing recognition of the AIF, more and more photographs were directly handed over to the foundation by individuals and professional photographers. Its collection has continuously grown in this way until today, without the need for extended research and field trips.
The AIF began its work at a time when museums only started to display their collections online and the idea of a universal dissemination of information on the cultural heritage they catalog became increasingly attractive (ref.5). Digital media and the Internet not only changed the contemporary production and everyday use of photography and the circulation of images, but also fostered the reevaluation of their status as historical sources by giving them new “exposure.” With the Internet and digital storage came, what Jacques Derrida called, a “promise of the archive”: a seemingly more democratic ground for historiography and a guaranteed afterlife for documents and knowledge, which otherwise would have most likely—sooner or later—been forgotten (ref.6).
The full essay originally appeared in the Stedelijk Studies Journal by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. A part of the essay is published here with the permission of the author.
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Daniel Berndt was the curator of ‘Comfort Zone I (Home)‘ exhibition presented at Gallery at VCUarts Qatar in 2019.
1. Argentina, Mexico, and Senegal are all countries with relatively large Arab communities of mostly Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian ancestry.
2. Maria Lind, for example, defines the curatorial as “a way of linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourses in physical space.” She imagines “this mode of curating to operate like an active catalyst, generating twists, turns, and tensions – owing much to site-specific and context-sensitive practices and even more to various traditions of institutional critique.” The curatorial would, according to her, “thus parallel Chantal Mouffe’s notion of ‘the political’, be an aspect of life that cannot be separated from divergence and dissent, a set of practices that disturbs existing power relations. At its best, the curatorial is viral presence that strives to create friction and push new ideas, whether from curators or artists, educators or editors.” See Maria Lind, ‘The Curatorial’, Artforum (October 2009):103. For further reading on the curatorial and curatorial practices, see also, for example, Beatrice von Bismarch, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski, eds., ‘Cultures of the Curatorial (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).
3,4. See Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins, and Anna Reading, ‘Introduction’, in ‘Save As…Digital Memories, eds. Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins, and Anna Reading (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 1-21, here 4.
5. Yvonne Bialek, ‘There Without Being There’: Ausstellungsansichten als Bilder Betrachten,” in (Post)Fotografiscches Arcivieren: Wandel – Macht – Geschichte, eds. Daniel Berndt, Yvonne Bialek, and Victoria von Fleming (Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 2016), 193-209.
6. Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,’ trans. Eric Prenowitz, Diacritics 25, no. 2 (summer 1995) : 9-63, here 11, 27.
7. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, ‘Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography, 2002,’ The Artist as Curator 3, ‘Mousse’, no.44 (2015), accessed August 25, 2016, http://moussemagazine.it/ttac3-b.
8. Karl Bassil, Zeina Maasri, and Akram Zaatari, eds., ‘Foreword’, collaboration with Walid Raad (Beirut: Mind the Gap and the Arab Image Foundation, 2002), 2.