Photography Biennale of the Contemporary Arab World
A feast for the eyes

With media reports on the Arab world focused on the political conflicts and current discussions dominated by dealing with migration from the region, the photo biennale in Paris shines as a beacon of diversity and pluralism. Felix Koltermann visited the exhibition for Qantara

Photography originally made its way to the Arab world in the luggage trains of European colonisers. Although much that was produced remained under the radar of Europe′s cultural institutions for a long time, the region began developing its own photographic traditions from the early 20th century on. Now, in the current era of global digital networks, the landscape has been utterly transformed.

The digitalisation of images has made starting out in the medium far easier and young photographers from the region can address an international audience directly via social media. A biennale showcasing photography from the contemporary Arab world is revealing just how fascinating the work of different generations of photographers from the region can be.

Two prestigious Paris institutions have come together for the biennale: the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) and the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie (MEP). It also incorporates various smaller galleries, all close to the two institutions in the 4th arrondissement, between the Seine and the Place des Vosges.

The MEP is one of the most important exhibition spaces for photography in France, while the IMA is a unique port of call dedicated to cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab countries. A total of fifty photographers are on show at the biennale.

A forum for young photographers

The central exhibition space with the largest biennale presentation, in the form of 18 photographic works, is the IMA. The exhibition there is structured into four chapters: Spring (which refers back to the Arab Spring), Culture and Identity, Interior Spaces and Landscape. The photos are accompanied by short statements in which the photographers give an introduction to their work and provide interesting background information. The pieces address a large variety of themes: the role of the younger generation, the subject of displacement and migration, religious identities, sexual violence against women and urbanisation issues. The high photographic quality and the excellent presentation of the pictures make for an impressive show.

France and the Arab world

The exhibition uses a broad definition of the term ″Arab world″. Firstly, work is presented by photographers with no personal biographical link to the region. Secondly, the content is equally broad: the work of Faycal Baghriche, for instance, shows mosques in Montreal and thus casts a glance at Muslim practices outside the Arab world. The pity about the IMA exhibition is that it only features single pictures by a number of photographers, even though they come from larger complexes of work. This takes the individual photos out of context, turning them into mere placeholders for the photographers′ work.

Yet again, however, the exhibition highlights France′s unique relationship with the Arab world. Cultural relations, particularly those with the former French colonies in northern Africa, are significantly closer than those of their European neighbours. This is evidenced by the many photographers and artists with Arab roots living in France and also by the much greater attention granted within France to photographic work from the region. As the biennale impressively proves, it is always worth looking to France′s art scene for positions from the Arab world.

Felix Koltermann

© 2016

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

All artists and their work are presented on the biennale website.

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