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Paris exhibition takes on clichés of Arab world

Pauline Beugnies | "Tahrir Generation", Cairo, 2012. Beugnies's show at the town hall of Paris’s 4th arrondissement

The first-ever Biennale of Photography in the Contemporary Arab World, which opened in Paris this week, aims to challenge stereotypes and highlight the diverse nature of modern Arab society.


A young woman appears suspended in the air, her crossed legs clad in blue jeans, her wrists encased in Brazilian bracelets. In this improbable position, she reads the Koran, immersed in the Muslim holy book in a gesture symbolising the synergy of spirituality and modernity.

Titled "Levitation," the photograph by Egyptian Wafaa Samir was chosen for the exhibition’s official poster and prompted many critics to suggest it was no coincidence, especially since it was also taken by a female photographer.

A massive exhibition featuring 160 works by 44 artists across eight venues in Paris, the show is organised by the Arab World Institute (IMA) and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP). Each of the works begins with the premise of a cliché: that of a Muslim world where certain images and representations are considered taboo.

A photo from the series "Ramadan". Exhibited at the IMA.
A photo from the series "Ramadan". Exhibited at the IMA.

The brainchild of Jack Lang, a former French culture minister and now president of the Arab World Institute, the show aims to depict the Arab world in its multifaceted plurality. The idea is to “reject the most worn-out clichés” about the Arab world, according to Lang, while “revealing hidden realities”.


Subverting what Palestinian-American academic Edward Said called “Orientalism” – a Western tendency to reduce the East to a fictionalised world heavy on exoticism – appears to be the focus of Leila Alaoui’s images at the biennial.

In her series “The Moroccans”, Alaoui presents portraits of men and women in traditional dress. But, rather than being inspired by any sense of supposed Arab mysticism, her motive was to capture and reclaim a culture that, as the 33-year-old Franco-Moroccan told FRANCE 24, “is at risk of disappearing”.

All the models posed for the portraits during the course of their normal daily lives and, as Alaoui explains, were not chosen by the photographer. Rather, they chose to come to her as she toured some of Morocco’s most remote regions on a road trip from the mountainous Rif in the north to the southern desert region of Khamlia, with a portable studio in her luggage.

“I set up my studio outside, during market days. The people passed by and those who wanted stopped to have their photo taken. The only thing I asked of them was to face me,” says Alaoui, who was inspired by Robert Frank’s portrayal of post-war America in his series “The Americans”.

Each model is photographed before a black curtain under the glare of artificial lighting – a technique that achieves a consistency that removes the subject from context.

Tamesloh, Middle Atlas, 2011. Exhibited at the MEP.
Tamesloh, Middle Atlas, 2011. Exhibited at the MEP.

Beyond the headlines

These days, though, the Orientalist view of the Arab world has largely been surpassed by another, no-less distorted perception of the East, one clouded by war, revolutions and religious conflict. The exhibition does not avoid these subjects, but takes a more subtle approach than the mainstream media.

French photographer Samuel Gratacap’s work is an in-depth exploration of the refugee crisis in Libya, while the Franco-Moroccan photographer Mouna Saboni addresses a “scourge” currently afflicting Egypt: sexual abuse and harassment.

Compelled by an Amnesty International report, Saboni travelled to Egypt in 2015. Out of that journey, her work “Fear” was born – a piece that combines often explicit and painful testimonies of suffering and humiliation with images that willfully aestheticises the female subjects through use of light and framing.

“I did not want the images to reveal a direct suffering, I wanted it to be suggested,” said Saboni. She deliberately separated the women’s photos from their testimonies, so that it is impossible to know which face belongs to which statement.

“The idea was not to point a finger in a society where rape is stigmatised but instead to show the victims in all their beauty, despite the trauma.” There are no victims on show, just survivors, fighters.

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Women in front and behind the lens

Saboni’s work brings up another stereotype that the biennial serves to highlight: the idea that Arab women are universally oppressed or confined to the private sphere – or that photography is a men’s-only pursuit.

Nevertheless, photography is easier for “outsiders” in the Arab world, a reality that’s clearly visible in the work of Pauline Beugnies on Egypt’s “Tahrir Generation”. In this project conducted between 2010 and 2015, the French photographer presents “an intimate portrait of an emerging generation that has chosen emancipation over the tyranny of patriarchy”.

Beugnies' work is on display at the town hall of Paris’s 4th arrondissement.

Across the Seine, the magnificent Musée d’Orsay is also hosting a show entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? (1839-1945)” that centres around similar themes, although it’s not part of the biennial.

At the IMA, meanwhile, Amelie Debray delivers a unique view on the passionate world of football in Palestine, which she describes as “a unifying element in a fragmented territory”, while Anne-Marie Filaire takes on the subject of adolescence in the UAE and Gaza.

Ultimately, the range of photographers and themes on show are as diverse as the Arab world itself. Gabriel Bouret, the exhibition’s head curator, describes it as “a colourful mosaic of cultures and light”. He also readily admits that he was no expert on the subject when work on the biennial got underway two years ago.

“Since then I have learned a lot,” he says. “I hope that this project will help to develop our worldview and point us in the direction of the reality and richness of a world we did not suspect existed.”

It is an aim that looks to have been brought to fruition.

Spectators at Al-Bireh de Ramallah stadium, Palestine, 2011. Exhibited at the IMA.
Spectators at Al-Bireh de Ramallah stadium, Palestine, 2011. Exhibited at the IMA.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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