On an unusually warm night last week, as part of London’s Safar Film Festival running until July 9, Dubai-based Gulf Photo Plus held its first Slidefest outside the Middle East.
Six Arab photographers from around the world presented their work to a packed-out crowd at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Part travelling roadshow, part Pecha Kucha – a presentation of 20 images each displayed for 20 seconds – the Slidefest concept was conceived by GPP director Mohamed Somji in 2009 “out of a frustration that we didn't have a place to show work by photographers”.
Although the UAE's cultural infrastructure has developed almost beyond recognition in the past 14 years, alongside that of the region, the concept is going strong because “there are still few spaces for artists in the Middle East to show work in conventional exhibitions”.
Slidefest offers established and emerging photographers an opportunity to show their work to a wide audience made up of photography and art fans, as well as people who are curious about the creative scene in the Arab world and diaspora.
“What we love about it is that photography is so accessible, it brings in a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily come to an exhibition they might feel is more conceptual,” says Somji.
The evening started with a presentation over Zoom by British-Egyptian Laura El-Tantawy, who lives in London but is currently hosting a workshop in Germany. Despite some technical and buffering issues, the artistry and expressiveness of El-Tantawy’s work remained undiminished.
The images were taken from a book compiled between 2012 and 2017 entitled Beyond Here is Nothing, which offers a meditation on “home”. Alongside a slideshow of slightly off-centre and shadowy images of clouds, red skies, birds, spiders, faces, water drops, roots and trees, El-Tantawy read out phrases such as “being somewhere but never completely”; and “constantly searching for familiarity in my surroundings”.
The images seemed at once exceedingly familiar, but also hazy, often seen in the form of a reflection or through a pane of glass or a filter, as if from a distance, there but not quite there.
“The words have to complement the images,” explained El-Tantawy, who said the idea of the book itself, which has a unique 3D format and opens upwards as well as to the sides, “is about going on a journey and getting lost and frustrated”.
The artist’s inspiration was deeply personal and emotional. “But it's also about history, where we come from, our place in the world, how we view the world, our biases.”
Her latest work, Pang’Ono Pang’Ono is a commission by Water Aid about the challenge many women in Malawi face to find clean water every day. El-Tantawy’s approach is to dwell on the emotional and physical toll this daily hardship causes. The result was raw, rich and beautiful, a constant “negotiation between the abstract and the realistic”.
Next up was Beirut's Dia Mrad, an architect-turned-artist, who also dialled in via Zoom. His latest photographic series, shown at Zawyeh Gallery in Dubai earlier this year, Utilities, focused on the material manifestations of Lebanon’s continuing economic crisis and the layers of new infrastructure that have appeared as a result.
Photos of chaotic electricity boxes connect homes to private generators; roofs are covered in forests of solar panels; terraces are consumed by water tanks and cables (a consequence of long periods with no electricity is also having no water); and an old Mercedes-Benz with a large water cistern strapped precariously to its luggage rack.
The images also depict ATMs with lockable doors, something that has appeared in recent years as a result of increasingly desperate people attempting to dismantle the machines to get to the money behind them.
“These are ordinary objects that shouldn’t be about much more than their function, but that have instead become artefacts of the crisis,” said Mrad, before plunging into darkness as the electricity went out in Beirut. His aim, he said after returning, was to create a survey of how the tangible repercussions of the crisis have changed the urban landscape of Beirut, and how the wealthier citizens are, the more extra infrastructure they have.
He was also keen “to highlight the absurdity of it all”, saying that the proliferation of solar panels has “put Lebanon on the map of emerging green countries”, despite the country’s slow-burning economic and government collapse.
Other difficult issues were explored as the evening progresses. Viewers observed compelling black-and-white documentary photography and video content by Dublin-based Ala Buisir, who interviewed hunger strikers imprisoned in Northern Ireland’s notorious H-Blocks and Guantanamo Bay prisoners to show the inhumane criminalisation and degrading treatment they endured.
Lina Geoushy, who splits her time between Cairo and London, showed a photographic project about sexual violence in Egypt, with women photographed in their own homes, gardens, balconies and living rooms. Parts of their testimonies were written in cursive text on the photos themselves.
Geoushy was asked after her presentation how she defends herself from simplistic views about the Arab world. “They want to fulfil a stereotype that Middle Eastern women are singularly oppressed,” she replied, “but I always try to emphasise that sexual violence is a universal issue.”
One thing that stood out during the evening is how much of what we see is not just about imagery but also words. Most of the photographers have done substantive interview and research work and writing to accompany their projects. “This reflects the way photography is moving to more of a multilayered approach,” says Somji. “We are always resisting the notion that a photo can speak a 1,000 words – we believe that context is everything.”
The next presentation, by Palestinian Samar Hazboun, challenged biases some in the West may have about the Arab world, through issues of gender and sexuality during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
It’s clear that Slidefest sees part of its remit as challenging these notions. “I think that engaging audiences with nuanced work definitely allows for a more complicated reading of societal and political issues in the Arab world,” says Somji by email after the event.
What’s interesting is the way the Covid-19 lockdowns exacerbated many of the issues raised in these photographic reportages. As well as limited funding possibilities and the fact that there are so few outlets and platforms for photographers, there’s another challenge to becoming better known as a photographer in the Middle East, says Geoushy.
“There’s a tendency for new outlets and galleries to represent and commission western photographers to make work in our region, which means there’s always a risk of misrepresentation. It’s also unfair because there are a lot of talented photographers and artists in our region who would be more suited for such commissions and exhibitions.”
The last photographer of the night was London teacher Sana Badri, who showed images of life in areas of North London that are undergoing, or at risk of, regeneration and redevelopment. Her presentation was understated and poignant, focusing on multicultural markets, a neighbourhood of shisha cafes that is disappearing and a bike shop that was a real community gathering space for young people but closed down due to noise complaints.
As Somji says: “Photographers like Sana would face a lot of gatekeepers in trying to break through into an exhibition or event.” Her session at Slidefest is an opportunity to meet and connect with a community of global and local diaspora artists – and an opportunity for a very mixed audience to get to know an engaging new talent.