The unsettling beauty of the Markazi exhibition and the questions it prompts

Yemeni refugees, camp of Markazi. Obock, Djibouti, Horn of Afrika, Decembre, 2016 to 2017

A refugee camp in Djibouti is the subject of a photo exhibition in Abu Dhabi. Deborah Lindsay Williams discusses the complex series of emotions raised by these works

I went to Louvre Abu Dhabi earlier this month and because I'm a member I didn't have to wait in line. But I was delighted by the fact that there was a line, perhaps because I am a recovering New Yorker for whom "waiting in line" is a quasi-perpetual occupation, as is the discussion about whether one waits "on" line or "in" line. You may laugh, but I've seen people almost come to blows about that simple prepositional shift.

In Abu Dhabi, of course, we just say “there was a queue,” and that Saturday, the queue extended the length of the lobby. I smiled at the people waiting because I was happy to see that even after the opening-weekend novelty, the museum continues to draw a crowd.

As I walked through the galleries, I noticed a crowd of people in front of Van Gogh's self-portrait. "It's so beautiful," a woman murmured to her friend as she snapped a photo of the painting. Putting aside the question of what it means to replicate a work of art in a photo doubtless to be shared on social media, I wondered about this question of beauty. Does "beautiful" blunt our perceptions; is it too easy a response to something as complex as a Van Gogh painting?

I had the same question about beauty in a different gallery earlier in the week, in reference to a very different type of art.

I'd gone to see an exhibit of photographs from Markazi, a refugee camp in Djibouti that houses tens of thousands of refugees, including about two thousand refugees from Yemen. The photographs were the visual component of a year-long ethnographic research project conceived by an NYUAD anthropologist, and at the opening, I overheard some people talking about the beauty of the images.

The photographs are beautiful, there is no doubt, but the beauty unsettled me. These pictures of people living in plastic tents and metal shipping containers, hemmed in by fences in the middle of a desert plain, thousands of miles from their homes: how could these images be “beautiful” when they documented people in such circumstances?


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The photographs don’t capture the smells of the camp, or the heat of the wind; we don’t see the sand, the flies, the dirt. “Misery is easy,” the photographer told me. “But how do we see the dignity of these people?” Some of the families in these photographs pose in their best clothes, smiling for the camera, while others look more relaxed. Regardless of their pose, their gaze demands that we see them as more than beautifully composed images; we need to see them, as the anthropologist suggested, “as if they could be our neighbours.” We might even see them as ourselves: as if we might be there, except for whatever twist of fortune’s wheel that kept us out of a conflict zone, or allowed us to escape a conflict zone without being herded into a camp.

The photographs and stories that emerge from Markazi reveal an all too common narrative: people displaced by events over which they themselves have little or no control, spun into a seemingly endless flood of movement that is, at the same time, constantly curtailed: the displaced can go here but not there, enter this country but not that. They stream into designated areas and cluster there, waiting.

I found a possible description for the Markazi show in a write-up about a New York gallery show featuring Kathe Kollwitz and Sue Coe. The reviewer wrote that the aim of these artists was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” paraphrasing a comment intended satirically by a 19th century newspaper writer.

The women who put together the Markazi exhibit say the refugees wanted their portraits taken, and wanted to use the cameras themselves to show the world their lives. The combined art of text and image became, even if only briefly, a source of comfort.

The question of beauty may obscure the question of discomfort, of being pushed to regard what we see not as objects in a frame on the wall but as elements of our own humanity, positioned so that we can see the world itself in brutal and unsettling detail.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi