There’s much food for thought in Modern Art Oxford’s new exhibition from Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. Offering insights into modes of self-presentation through film and photographs, the exhibition explores representations of male identity in the Middle East with poignancy and depth. It's a study of how people present themselves to the world, with the added dimensions of how customs of self-presentation through photographic media have changed over time, and of how the relationship between adults and children has affected, and continues to affect, individual instances of such presentation.
As a co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and study of photography from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora, it’s no surprise that there’s a historical slant to Zaatari’s work. The exhibition opens with a series of portraits from the Studio archive of Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani. In small images literally hewn from the wall of a previous installation, luminous subjects glimmer hopefully in the gloom of irregularly-shaped backgrounds suggestive of tiny caves. El Madani's work is fascinating. Running a hugely successful photography studio in Sidon from the 1950s onwards, he claimed to have photographed some 80% of the town's population. But while the style of the images and subjects seem to be superficially of their time, on closer inspection, they are much more varied and playful than what you might expect from formal portrait sittings, reflecting El Madani's gift of interpreting his subjects' dream-world, portraying them as they wish to be seen: a woman pointing a pistol; a young man with his arm around a glamorous cardboard cut-out. The photos are presented in a way that's suggestive of an archaeological find, reinforcing their place in a narrative spanning several generations.
The gallery’s largest space is given over to Dance to the End of Love, four huge screens showing a montage of mainly playful clips uploaded to Youtube on the eve of the Arab spring. There's a pleasing, if slightly reproachful, lack of judgment here: films of dangerous driving are presented on a par with gauche body-building poses and soulful guitar playing. Although some of these films may be inspired by what I would interpret as a culture of oppressive masculinity, they have in common a naivety and hopefulness which is quite moving, and the form of maleness which is ultimately portrayed is overwhelmingly positive and vulnerable. Whatever the character of expression, the impulse to curate one's one image comes from the same place. The freedom of self-expression which came from platforms like Youtube is complemented by the 1995 film Reflection (Nour) of children at play, and Another Resolution, which explores control of an image through holding or imposing a pose.
The title piece of the exhibition, The Script, is a delight; peaceful and joyful, serious and amusing. Using fairly neutral search terms such as ‘father and son’, Zataari uncovered a host of internet clips of fathers being disturbed by young children while performing the Islamic duty of prayer salah. The obligation not to break off from prayer means these images often feature a kind of benevolent stoicism as the father continues to pray, a heart-warming juxtaposition of religious and parental obligation, here presented as two kinds of love. A re-enactment distils the online footage into a single piece, first in a domestic setting, then on a stage, as father is interrupted by two sons, aged perhaps 4 and 2. The detail is exquisite: the jaunty sound, familiar to all parents of toddlers, of a ride-on vehicle is heard at the outset as the camera focuses on the composed face of the father; the older child knows to kick off his shoes as he moves onto the carpet on the stage; the children are clearly familiar with their father’s pattern of movement and position themselves ready to climb on him as he kneels. One lovely shot from directly above shows the empty prayer mat, followed by the father’s hands, then head bent in devotion, and then the head and tiny body of the toddler clinging to his back, the waistband of a nappy just visible above little trousers. The toddler crows in delight.
The film ends with a close shot of what looks like a bank of empty auditorium seats, but might just, at a stretch, be building blocks, and the camera pans back to confirm the former. Extraordinarily intimate scenes are now routinely shared online, but there’s safety, at least, in numbers. There's an audience out there for all of us, just waiting to be called into existence in response to our acts of self-expression.