الفنون: Contemporary Arts of the Middle East & North Africa

an enthusiastic novice's thoughts


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The Shock of Being Seen

My last post explored the controversial idea of the MMPVA‘s current exhibition. As soon as I stated my case publicly, I made plans to visit the exhibition– I know, I know, these things typically happen in the opposite order, but sometimes work gets in the way of such ideal schemes. The important point here is: I made it out to MMVPA’s temporary location in Marrakech’s Badiaa Palace in the early afternoon today, and I got to see the exhibition in person.

The temporary home of the MMVPA in the Badiaa Palace.

The temporary home of the MMVPA in the Badiaa Palace.

The exhibition is arranged so that the front doors of the exhibition space open up to a main gallery floor with several smaller rooms receding from it. The visitor’s first encounter, therefore, are glimpses of Susan Meiselas‘ formal portraits of Marrakchi women interwoven with mounted 20 dh bills. The small gallery to the left displays plans for the future MMVPA, and the space to the left houses Mark Power‘s encounters with couples and workers in the Menara gardens. Spread throughout the main cavity of the gallery were Abbas‘ black and white, incognito portraits on-the-go, Jim Goldberg‘s large landscapes with intermittent intimate moments, and an entire corner devoted to the projector curating Mikhael Subotzky‘s filmed encounters with seemingly every character Jemaa El Fnaa has to offer.

Some of the photos were raw, some were pretty, some made me feel guilty (mostly those done by Abbas, especially when I found myself staring into a black and white baby’s confused eyes). My favorite experience, however, were the faceless portraits. I found several moments mounted outside of each artist’s carefully-curated corner that made me spend more time with the photographs.

Meticulously-arranged shoes without their foot companions, a cigarette vendor whose work is highlighted by the product in his hands, and a food stall owner with his face obscured by a cloud of smoke– these are the artistic moments that rise from the challenge of photographing people who do not want to be photographed. The woman’s portrait is another favorite. Captured by another photographer (most likely with her explicit permission), her face is published on a faded beauty magazine. It now is being sold as a side note among a menagerie of odds and ends that define the souks of Marrakech. These are the impressions that define Marrakech: staged, spontaneous, natural, and found.

And then there was the curator’s wall.

Simon Njami was the source of the idea and the organizer of the result. I spent a lot of time with his written explanation of the exhibition, which he aptly titled “The shock of being seen”. Since reading about the idea yesterday, I was curious where it came from and why it manifested in the way that it did. Njami’s words provided a little guidance and a lot of questions.

Photography is above all about telling stories. The photographer uses his own language to express ideas and feelings. To use the definition of the French psychologist Henri Delacroix: “language is what transforms the chaotic world of sensations into forms and representations”. He is, in other words, translating a certain reality into his own words. Then comes the viewer who is forced to translate a translation into another language that he masters best. What is gained and what is lost in this operation is what our project is about. We are focusing on this “in between” dear to Socrates, which is the space, the only one, where a dialogue can occur between two apparent contradictory realities.

We might even need the other to understand ourselves better. The gaze through which we understand the world is informed by our culture, our upbringing, the experiences we’ve been through. If familiarity is not knowledge, unfamiliarity does not correspond to a lack of knowledge. It carries with it the inability to understand, or to put it differently, to read properly the signs that are laid before our eyes. The strangeness of what we see lead us to believe, wrongly, that we don’t know. That is the moment when, once we have understood the problem we are facing, we have to take on a meditation that would help us to translating from one language to another. Whether the language be spoken, gestural, or sensorial, there is often much that is untranslatable between cultures, which I will call the idiomatic.

Which is why any translation necessarily involves a degree of mal entendu, a misunderstanding that is “badly heard”. But rather than limiting oneself to classroom “accuracy”, it is important to embrace this positive misunderstanding that engenders a third way of hearing things, which is the result of the confrontation, or rather the juxtaposition, of two different entities. Translating is much richer than that, however: in the freedom of interpretation which it leaves the translators; the rich semantic scope that is called upon; and the contrasting images that you can find, for example, when the same text is translated by two different people.

It is important to keep those filters through which we evaluate the world alive. They protect us from an impossible and lethal assimilation by creating misunderstandings. But it would be wrong to look at those misunderstandings in a negative way. There are misunderstandings that I call positive, because they allow to comprehend the existence of a gap. The gap is a reality that we should not try to avoid, as François Jullien explains: While the tension generated by the gap engenders — produces — a fecundity, I remind you by opposition that difference produces nothing except for a definition. The same goes for cultures discovering themselves in their respective fecundities as resources not just to be explored but also that each of them can thence exploit, regardless of their initial belonging and place of origin. For the gap is explored and exploited.

And it is only through that understanding that we can be able to reach out and talk to the “other”. For if we are different, not always only culturally (there are a lot of those misunderstandings between men and women, for instance), we all share this “chaotic world of sensations” that constitutes the very human nature. In Marrakech, we found ourselves lost in translation. But instead of avoiding the problems that were raised by this reality, we decided to embrace them, to confront them in a both visual and intellectual manner. We don’t [sic] about the results, because we decided to give up any form of certainty outside what we knew we could master: the production of images. We moved away from any comfort zone to appear fragile before the Marrakech [sic] people eyes. They will be the ones to read what we’ve doing [sic] from their own vintage [sic] point. And that manner of confrontation can only be positive. There is also a polysemy contained in each image that is nothing but subjectivity. The only thing that the photographers gathered in the Marrakesh experience can affirm, without fearing to be wrong is what Roland Barthe once urged them to be proud of: I was there.

What we have experiencing [sic] here, body and soul, is what Jean-Paul Sarte in Black Orpheus, his introduction to the Anthology of Black poetry gathered by Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1948, named “the shock of being seen”. But it is not only about us, dear visitors. It is also about you.

I spent a lot of time with this, reconciling my gut reactions, first impressions, common sense, academic training, and, of course, this relationship between this rather rich explanation and the actual exhibition. If this exhibition is about exploring the gaps between cultures and talking to the other, why does the majority of the exhibition (save for Meiselas’ work and the aforementioned “faceless portraits”) appear to be talking about the other? I love the ideas Njami brings up. Photographs are indeed inherent storytellers, and the work featured in this exhibition is no exception. But what story are they telling? The focus, here, seems to be on the struggles of the photographers and the ridiculous (from our point of view) aversion to the camera that they experienced with Moroccans– one that forced them to “move away from any comfort zone to appear fragile before the Marrakech people eyes.” Appear fragile? The photographers? This seems to miss the point. Why did no one explore why Moroccans don’t enjoy getting their picture taken? I guess that doesn’t relate well to the apparent message of the photographers’ experience–“I was there”. Lastly, however, Njami reminds us that it’s still about us, the viewers. What happened to the Moroccans in the photographs?

The obvious comparison here is American artist Vito Acconci’s 1969 performance piece, Following PieceAcconci essentially followed random individuals through the street until the entered into a private area (a building, a house) and filmed the interaction. He challenges  our notions of public and private, of the spectator and the spectacle. Like the artists of the Magnum Cooperative, Acconci causes discomfort for the viewer (should we be watching this private moment even though it’s happening in what we consider a public space?) and most likely the subject, if they ever realized they were being followed. However, Acconci walks that fine line of being provocative and forcing us, the viewers (who Njami has to remind– it’s about us!), to question our societal understandings, while still managing to work successfully within his society’s parameters. By this, I mean that his work is not so uncomfortable or disconcerting that no one wants to interact with it. The gap between us and the other that Njami is so interested in exploring and exploiting is able to be empathized with.

Why is Acconci more successful? First of all, he’s working within a society that does not have a natural aversion to being photographed. Most importantly, however, he’s working within his own society. I, of course, believe that artists can produce work addressing cultures outside of their own. However, working with “the other” requires more depth and understanding than tackling “first impressions” of a city, as the photographers of the Magnum Cooperative were assigned. Part of what made Acconci’s Following Piece so successful is that he presents people from our own society as “the other”. We reconsider ourselves within the situation Acconci presents: a stranger following a stranger. The majority of the Magnum Cooperative photographs do not provide that type of relevance to the viewer. Instead, they project images of Morocco through an outdated Orientalist filter: women in jellebas, men in secondhand clothing, devotion to prayer in an archaic way. Subotzky’s film in particular perpetuates the idea of the exotic, highlighting the Aladdin-like fantasy of snake charmers and black magic in the tourist square of Jemaa El Fna. This isn’t following to seek to understand. This is making a caricature of a society that doesn’t want to be photographed.

Interestingly– and I’m not sure if purposefully– there is a simultaneous exhibition going on in a side gallery outside of the main entrance to the Magnum Collective’s exhibition. “Fame, Fashion, Celebrity” by Lewis Morley is a sampling of the late photographer’s collection of celebrity portraits, including Salvador Dali and Anthony Hopkins. What a juxtaposition. First, you see Moroccans who do not want to be photographed. Next, you witness an entire oeuvre of photographs from models, actors, politicians– people who live to be photographed. This is either brilliant or proves how deep the misunderstanding is regarding Moroccans’ aversion to having their picture taken. On the one hand, the viewer can revel in the rich contrasts between the images they are and aren’t used to seeing: comparing the everyday, tired, imperfect lives of people to the meticulous, fabulous, curated bodies and faces of famous people we recognize. Alternatively, we can liken the two, reducing the honest fear that a Moroccan woman might harbor about getting beaten if her husband found out her picture was being circulated by the New York Times to a phobia of having a “bad hair day” or getting photographed from her “fat side”. These are the realities of someone’s life that you might not realize even after following them through the streets and filming them.

This subversion between the artist and the subject, the viewer and the spectator, seems sloppily handled. The shock of being seen is only achieved in the literal sense by the Moroccans being photographed. If this exhibition is any indication, the rich cultural depth between us and our subjects has not yet been discovered, leaving Moroccans as the exotic “other”. I maintain that these gaps are best explored by Moroccans or outsiders with some sort of empathy to the culture’s desire for privacy. Get ’em next time.