Tuesday, 2 August 2011


TATE MODERN until 31.3.2011

c artist 290x190mm
Zaatari examines the faces and attitudes of anonymous people in the Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1970s, drawing from the archive of photographer Hashem el Madani. His studio acted as a safe haven where people could act out their fantasies within the conventions of studio portraiture. He kept a cache of props: Bedouin clothes, plastic guns, caps, scarves.  I’m reminded of a seaside photograph taken in England when air travel was the privilege of the rich. It shows my mother as a young girl posed with her friends in a plywood ‘ aeroplane’.

This picture was scratched because of a jealous husband of the Baqari family who never let his wife out by herself. The text accompanying the photos is taken from conversations with Madani: ‘He was upset because she came to the studio without his knowledge. He came asking for the negatives. I refused to give them to him because they were on a 35mm roll. In the end we agreed that I would scratch the negatives of his wife with a pin, and I did in front of him.  Years later, after she burnt herself to death to escape her misery, he came back to me asking for enlargements of those photographs or other photographs she might have had taken without his knowledge.’  

This charming photograph is more typical of the display It was taken in Madani’s parents’ home and the little girl’s name is unknown. Madani comments 'In the 1940s and 1950s people loved to pose with a radio. I bought a radio for 200 Lira and I would ask people to touch it as if they were switching frequencies. Once, a little girl placed her dollies next to the radio.'

 Akram Zaatari is one of five photographers in a remarkable exhibition exploring documentary forms. Each room contains one discrete project, in which the artist calls into question the relationship between the documentary value of photography and the museum as its proper context. All the works are new acquisitions and other artists' subjects include elections in the Congo, everyday life in pre- and post- Soviet Ukraine, conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and  the ecological  effect of American power production and consumption.

One of the strengths of this exhibition is the way it interrogates our own society. Jealous husbands are not confined to Lebanon in the 1940s. Pollution does not end when you step outside America. And what are our current conventions in photography? Why do we spend a fortune on weddings (at a time when marriage has hardly been more fragile) and nothing on funerals? Why do we prioritise unhealthy body shapes? And how come we give ourselves permission to turn humiliation and suffering into spectacle now that the camera is everywhere? 



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