Exhibition View Sfeir-Semler Gallery

 

This Day

The Desert Panorama, 2002 - 06
Composite digital image, in two sizes:
C-Print, framed, 127 x 500 cm, C-Print, framed, 81 x 304 cm

"The Desert Panorama", 2007, Serie of C-Prints, each 91 x 112 cm

Untitled, (diptych), 2009, set of 2 C-Prints, 60 x 60 cm

Untitled, 2007, C-Print, each 91 x 112 cm

 

All is Well on the Border

  • Nabih Awada. Badaro, Beirut, 2007

Nabih Awada. Badaro, Beirut, 2007
C-Print, framed, 91 x 74 cm

  • Letters from Askalan, 2007

Letters from Askalan, 2007
C-Print, framed, 91 x 74 c

  • Untitled (Nabih Awada's Letters fromAskalan, letter 20-11-90b), 2007

  • Untitled (Nabih Awada's Letters fromAskalan, letter 20-11-90b), 2007

  • Untitled (Nabih Awada's Letters fromAskalan, letter 20-11-90b), 2007

  • Untitled (Nabih Awada's Letters fromAskalan, letter 20-11-90b), 2007

  • Untitled (Nabih Awada's Letters fromAskalan, letter 20-11-90b), 2007

  • Book of letters from family and friends, 2007

Book of letters from family and friends, 2007
C-Print, framed, 91 x 74 cm

  • Untitled, 1993/2007

  • Untitled, 1993/2007, C-Print, framed, 49 x 40 cm, Ed. 5+1 a.p.

  • Untitled, 1993/2007

  • Untitled, 1993/2007

  • Untitled, 1993/2007

Untitled, 2007, set of 5 C-Prints, 49 x 40 cm

  • Untold, 2008

Untold, 2008, a photo/video installation with 48 photograhs
2 videos and a lightbox

  • Letter to Samir, 2007
    Letter to Samir, 2007

 

In This House

  • The cancellation of the Front, 2007

The cancellation of the Front, 2007, C-Prints, 91 x 112 cm

  • Souvenirs from the Front, 2007

  • Souvenirs from the Front, 2007

  • Souvenirs from the Front, 2007

Souvenir from the Front, 2007, set of 5 C-Prints, 91 x 112 cm

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

Untitled, 2007, set of 5 C-Prints, 91 x 112 cm

  • "Le Monde (Friday August 18, 2006)", 2007

"Le Monde (Friday August 18, 2006)"
2007, C-Prints, 74 x 91 cm

 

This Day

  • Untitled, 1982-84/2007

  • Untitled, 1982-84/2007

  • Untitled, 1982-84/2007

Untitled, 2007, set of 5 C-Prints, 91 x 112 cm

  • Book of all diaries (01), 2006

  • Book of all diaries (02), 2006

  • Perfect Timing (02), 2006

  • Perfect Timing (03), 2006

  • Perfect Timing (04), 2006

  • Perfect Timing (01), 2006

  • Perfect Timing ( a series of 8), 2006

  • Perfect Timing ( a series of 8), 2006

"Perfect Timing" ( a series of 8), 2006, set of 2 C-Prints, 28,5 x 19 cm

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

Learning photography, 2009, set of 2 C-Prints, each 36,5 x 55 cm

  • March Fourteen, 2007

  • March Fourteen, 2007

March Fourteen (diptych), 2007, set of 2 C-Prints, 49 x 40 cm

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

Untitled, 1982-85, set of 2 C-Prints, each 91 x 112 cm

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

Audiotapes, 1980-83, set of 9 C-Prints, 40 x 49 cm

  • Untitled, 2007

  • Untitled, 2007

Untitled, 2007, set of 2 C-Prints, 40 x 49 cm

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

  • Learning photography, 2009

Learning Photography, 2009, C-Print, 73,3 x 110 cm

 

Nature Morte

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

  • Nature Morte - Landscape, 2007

Nature Morte - Landscapes, 2009, C-Print

  • "Saida June 6, 1982", 2006-09

"Saida June 6, 1982", 2006-09
Composite Photograph, C-Print, 92 x 190 cm

 


January 2010

Akram Zaatari

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

 AKRAM ZAATARI’S ELEVEN-MINUTE VIDEO Nature Morte, 2007, opens with two men seated in a drab, white-walled room. One of the men—older, with a weathered face and sad, sunken eyes—fills the foreground on the right-hand side of the screen. The other—healthier, more alert—appears, slightly out of focus, in the background to the left. The dramatic depth of field exaggerates the distance between them and accentuates the incongruity of their tasks: Both men are working silently with their hands, but the older one is wrapping explosives in cardboard and tape, while the younger, with needle and thread, is delicately mending a jacket.

The camera lingers on this scene. At first the room is dimly lit, then flooded with fluorescent light, then, with a click, plunged into darkness—a power failure—and then, with a hiss, illuminated once again by the glow of a gas lamp. Daylight seeps in. The morning call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. The scene breaks, and the pace quickens. We see shot and countershot of the older man’s face, the younger man’s face, the two men facing each other in profile. Another jump cut and we are looking at a landscape: lush, green trees and a low stone wall snaking beside a narrow footpath. We see the older man trudging along that path—with a rifle and a rucksack, his jacket repaired, his lunch in a plastic bag—until he disappears.

Viewers familiar with the political history of Lebanon are likely to grasp the significance of the video’s setting, identified in the closing credits as the village of Hubbariyeh. Hubbariyeh is located a stone’s throw from Shebaa Farms, a slice of mountainous terrain at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Ownership of the territory has been disputed between Lebanon and Syria for nearly a century, and Israel has occupied the area since 1967. Hezbollah, for its part, uses Shebaa Farms as a pretext for attacking Israeli soldiers and makes no secret of its ambition to retake the territory, a move that, if attempted, would almost certainly provoke a war. The ominous image at the end of Zaatari’s video, of the older man lumbering toward Shebaa Farms with a makeshift bomb on his back, makes that war feel all the more imminent.

Nature Morte was conceived for the Centre Pompidou’s 2008 exhibition “Les Inquiets” (The Anxious), which examined representations of war through the work of five contemporary artists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It marked a pivotal moment in Zaatari’s oeuvre, which comprises videos, photographs, multimedia installations, authored and coedited publications, an ambitious urban intervention in the Lebanese port city of Saida (where the artist was born), and two carefully curated film programs. Over the past decade, Zaatari has established himself in Beirut as one of the most respected artists of Lebanon’s so-called postwar generation. Like other members of that generation, he employs documentary practices while subverting them to expose the fallibility of both history and memory. Unlike his peers in Beirut, however, Zaatari doesn’t focus exclusively on Lebanon’s protracted civil war, emphasizing instead stories, conditions, and phenomena that have been overlooked or buried beneath that all-consuming narrative. He also doesn’t invent characters (such as the imagined photographer at the center of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Wonder Beirut project, 1997­2006, or the fictional personalities who populate Walid Raad’s work with the Atlas Group), but rather uses actual people and events. Zaatari’s creative process involves conducting extensive interviews with his subjects and gathering from them vast collections of letters, diaries, civic documents, snapshots, press clippings, home movies, cassette tapes, mementos, and more. In the videos that arise from this material, his subjects are almost always present, speaking on-screen in the manner of eyewitnesses offering testimony, though not always spontaneously: Sometimes they recite stories they’ve previously told the artist, and sometimes, when the subject is unavailable (because he’s in prison, for example), Zaatari enlists an artist or friend to perform the part.

Much of his work draws on the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, a Beirut-based nonprofit he founded in 1997 with the photographers Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad. The foundation’s mandate is to collect and preserve examples of the region’s photographic heritage (artistic, vernacular, and commercial), but it doubles as a research center for its members, many of whom are, like Zaatari, artists with an interest in the archival. Zaat

ari’s work has often been shown internationally, in geographically themed shows, but recently it has received more general attention—a development that coincides with the stylistic break of Nature Morte. Leading up to this moment, Zaatari’s videos had been intensely talkative, hinging on anecdotes, testimonies, dirty jokes, and the potent imagery of idiomatic Arabic. Crazy of You, 1997, for example, features interviews with young men from the industrial suburbs of Beirut, who boast about acts of sexual conquest and domination; How I Love You, 2001, details the experiences of young gay men in Lebanon, who candidly describe how they conduct (and code) their lives; In This House, 2005, which documents the artist’s attempt to unearth a letter buried by militiamen in a garden in south Lebanon, features a cacophony of conversations with police officers, intelligence agents, and nosy neighbors.



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Nature Morte, by contrast, is devoid of dialogue. The only sounds to be heard are ambient and apparently diegetic—the hiss of the gas lamp, the flare of a lighter, the crackling of radio static. The video is also visually spare, whereas Zaatari’s previous works accumulated dense layers of papers, objects, and images on-screen—this layering being an aesthetic strategy he shares with other Lebanese artists, such as Raad and Rabih Mroué. And it is the closest the artist has ever come to narrative cinema: His earlier works, even if they touch on a story or flesh out an anecdote, use fragmentation, essayistic or documentary tropes, and disjointed associations between still images and intertitles to undercut the narrative flow, whereas Nature Morte uses a smooth and expressly cinematic visual language to actually tell a story, even if an elusive and ambiguous one.

This finesse notwithstanding, Zaatari got his start in the freewheeling and somewhat rough-and-tumble world of Lebanese television in the mid-1990s. Having studied architecture at the American University of Beirut and media at the New School in New York, Zaatari was hired in 1995 as the executive producer of a morning television program for Future TV. Lebanon’s television industry had just been reorganized to curb the broadcasting excesses of the previous era; every party and militia across the political spectrum had set up its own station during the civil war. When the conflict ended, the government reduced the more than fifty channels to around ten. Future TV was one of the newer, more professional stations that aggressively recruited young creative types and gave them unfettered access to equipment, along with relative freedom to produce highly experimental documentaries—a liberty that the influential documentarian Mohamed Soueid was probably the first to embrace. Taking advantage of this atmosphere, many contemporary Lebanese artists got their start in TV. Zaatari’s earliest videos were originally screened as filler between the morning show’s segments.

Because Zaatari and other artists in Lebanon come from backgrounds outside fine art—not only from television and other professional fields but also from academic programs in visual culture and media studies—their connection to the country’s art history is tenuous at best, and they have little interest in the local artists who preceded them throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether landscape painters, social realists, Abstract Expressionists, or avant-garde performers. Indeed, it has been argued that one of the main problems afflicting Beirut’s (often factionalized) contemporary art scene is that the current generation cannot enact any kind of Oedipal struggle, because no “father” in the sphere of contemporary art exists as such. (Soueid comes closest to playing the part, but he is not much older than Zaatari and his peers and, moreover, has made a point of operating outside the art world and within the parameters of television and feature film.) In interviews, Zaatari has said he feels a closer kinship to his predecessors elsewhere, such as Harun Farocki and Jean-Luc Godard.

Yet kinship is something Zaatari continues to seek in his own country and within a distinctly local context. His videos conjure a kind of imagined community of men who have, like him, made images, told stories, and assembled vast collections of seemingly ephemeral materials. Significantly, these men are seldom, if ever, artists. More often they are camera technicians, photojournalists, studio portraitists, or prisoners taking photographs or recording videos to send to their families and friends. Zaatari doesn’t turn them into artists, but he does turn their lives and experiences into art. Take, for example, Hashem El Madani, who was born in 1928 and spent more than five decades working as a commercial photographer in Saida. Hundreds of thousands of his negatives are in the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, and he is the subject of a long-term project Zaatari initiated a decade ago, which has yielded numerous works in a range of formats. Through this engagement with El Madani’s archive, Zaatari teases out histories of the ways in which photography has been used—functions ranging from the crudely political (a parliamentary candidate shoring up support by commissioning voter-identification photos) to the intensely personal (young men and women using the space of El Madani’s studio to enact fantasies or embody gender-bending identities).

With such projects, Zaatari traces an alternative lineage for contemporary art, one in which the most meaningful links do not go between generations of artists but rather cut across the various disciplines, professions, and economies that govern the making of images—with a particular eye toward times of political unrest and places marked by conflict. Here it’s worth noting that Zaatari’s characters, the members of his imagined community, are often both imagemakers and militants. His oeuvre is full of such subtle but unmistakable reminders that artists, writers, and filmmakers are never entirely outside the conflicts they cover, reflect on, or critique. The fluidity of these roles—producer of images versus fighter; observer of wars versus partisan—is a crucial dynamic in Zaatari’s work.



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This was particularly evident in the artist’s recent survey, on view at the Kunstverein München in the spring of 2009 and, in expanded form, in Beirut at Galerie Sfeir-Semler and the Beirut Art Center the following summer and fall. The exhibition, which Zaatari curated himself, was divided into five “chapters,” each organized around a video and supported by photographs, texts, and other printed matter. Each, further, illuminated the story of one of the men Zaatari has known, interviewed, and befriended over the course of many years. One chapter, clustered around the video This Day, 2003, dwelled on the elderly historian Jibrail Jabbur, who discusses the research on nomadic Bedouin tribes in Syria that he conducted in the 1950s with the Armenian photographer Manoug. By 2003, the tribes’ traditional way of life had disappeared, while Manoug’s images remain.

Two chapters shared not only a focus on a hidden letter but an interest in complicating perceptions of the militant persona. The first focused on photojournalist Ali Hashisho: In the aforementioned video In This House, Hashisho tells Zaatari (and us) about his days as a leftist militant, occupying an abandoned house with his comrades and burying a note for the owners, should they ever return. Zaatari conveys Hashisho’s story through a combination of interview footage and an assemblage of Hashisho’s belongings—pages from his diary, his ID cards and press credentials, and souvenirs he collected from “the front,” including bits of rock, acorns, and dried leaves. Then the artist heads to the house with a camera, a gardener, and a shovel. Against expectations, he unearths the letter, which has been preserved in a mortar casing for fifteen years. It proves disarmingly sentimental, full of clumsy quips and Khalil Gibran quotes. The second of these chapters centered on the video Letter to Samir, 2008, which concerns Nabih Awada, also a former leftist militant, who was imprisoned in Israel for ten years. During that time, Awada wrote letters prolifically, often in a minuscule script on thin sheets of paper he then meticulously folded and wrapped in cellophane. In Letter to Samir, Zaatari meets with Awada ten years after his release and asks him to write a letter to Samir Kuntar, a high-profile militant. As Awada scribbles, we have time to peruse a wall text informing us that it was common practice among prisoners to conceal their correspondence beneath their tongues and to pass it on to visitors, particularly fellow party members, by kissing them on the mouth.

The remaining two chapters served as bookends for the exhibition. These focused on Mohammad Abu Hammane, the older man in Nature Morte and also the subject of Zaatari’s All Is Well on the Border, 1997. In All Is Well, we learn that Abu Hammane, too, is a leftist fighter who has been displaced by the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and has taken up temporary employment in Beirut as a camera technician. Coming to Nature Morte with this knowledge in mind, and having wended one’s way through the other tales Zaatari told in this exhibition, one realized that Zaatari’s recent film is as much a convergence as a departure. In many ways, it knits together the varied concerns—constructions of masculinity and the bonds men share, political conflicts and geographic territories that resist representation, the inner lives of former militants and fighters associated with leftist movements that have become irrelevant or obsolete—that Zaatari has been exploring throughout his career. Early in All Is Well, Abu Hammane teaches Zaatari how to manipulate images by adjusting the aperture and the zoom on his lens—teaches him, that is, how the camera can distort reality. Yet as his grim exit in Nature Morte suggests, however much the camera distorts reality, it does not escape it. Neither does Zaatari; rather, he parses its dizzying mediations and its political, affective, and aesthetic contradictions.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.

 
 
 

The National
1st October 2009

Object lessons

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
 Akram Zaatari’s excavations of Lebanon’s past explore its forgotten relics and contested zones ­ and trace an untold history of violence and resistance, writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.
Nobody lives in Shebaa Farms these days. This tiny slice of mountainous terrain, wedged between Lebanon and Syria and occupied by Israel since 1967, has been emptied of inhabitants for more than 40 years. Israel contends that the area is part of the Golan Heights and belongs, therefore, to Syria.
But Lebanon also claims ownership over Shebaa Farms, and Hizbollah uses it as a pretext for retaining its weapons, maintaining that Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 is incomplete, which gives the resistance a reason for being.
But for now nobody except for Israeli soldiers can get into Shebaa Farms. The territory, drained of human dramas and the details of everyday life, is a blank space, something to be imagined and conjured rather than experienced firsthand. And yet Shebaa Farms is bandied about all the time in Lebanon, in the local press, on television chat shows and in mundane corner-shop conversations. For some, it is a linchpin, the key that will ensure a certain future and allow the last great dream of liberation to be realised. For others, it is a lousy, insignificant scrap of land that has been turned into a grand conceit, a fabrication and a fiction that only serves to distract and delay the resolution of conflicts that could be dealt with today. In either case, Shebaa Farms has come to suggest an almost mythical terrain, absent and present at once ­ so far, yet so close.
Shebaa Farms is nowhere to be seen in the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s latest exhibition, “Earth of Endless Secrets”, a major mid-career survey on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler and the Beirut Art Center. But it is everywhere hinted at and alluded to. Lush, large-format photographs depict the landscape that leads to ­ but does not enter ­ the territory. One image features a huge blue sign reading “Welcome to Shebaa”, marking the entrance to the village of that name, which is located a few kilometres north-east of the farms.
The video Tabiaah Samitah (Nature Morte) lingers on the edge of Hubbariyeh, another village situated a stone’s throw from Shebaa Farms. The piece is gorgeously shot and visually austere. It traces only the skeletal outline of a story. But it creates an atmosphere full of mystery and foreboding, ending with an ominous suggestion of violence in the contested territory that lies just beyond our line of sight.
For the past two years, Zaatari has been conducting interviews with people who were born in Shebaa Farms but left the area in the 1960s. He has been collecting their stories and gathering their photographs, records, keepsakes and mementoes. Some of the material is personal, shedding light on the lives that farmers and shepherds led half a century ago. Some of it is more political, delving into the secret history of Shebaa Farms as a site where the resistance began, and where it may end.
For Zaatari, Shebaa Farms is only the latest in a long line of other research projects on territorial conflicts: about spaces and eras that elude representation and produce meaning from mnemonic material. But given the political currency of the topic, and the aesthetic form Zaatari has found to engage it, the images and videos perfectly encapsulate how he works, why his art matters and what it says ­ or how it explores what can be said ­ about living through times of invasion, occupation, resistance and withdrawal.

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“Earth of Endless Secrets”, which first opened at a museum in Munich before travelling to Beirut, is a meticulous and exhaustive re-ordering of almost everything Zaatari has done in the last 15 years. It divides more than 150 works into five chapters, each organised around a single video and supported by a slew of photographs, texts and other printed matter. Accompanied by a month-long series of video screenings and a string of related events at the French Cultural Center and the art-house cinema Metropolis, it is the largest exhibition for a living artist to take place in Beirut in the last 20 years.
It is also the only exhibition staged for the benefit of a local audience to present the work of an artist from Lebanon’s so-called post-war generation in such a comprehensive way. Zaatari is one of the most prodigious talents of that generation, and he is one of the most active participants in Beirut’s contemporary art scene. His work has been so present in pivotal exhibitions, forums and festivals, and he has been involved in so many independent organisations and initiatives and projects, that it is difficult to imagine Lebanon’s current artistic landscape without him.
The five chapters of the show illuminate the stories of several men whom Zaatari has known, interviewed and befriended over the course of many years. These men joined the Lebanese resistance movement against Israel when they were teenagers ­ when the reigning ideologies of the day leaned to the left. The works on view trace the experiences of these men through occupation, displacement and incarceration, to the uneasy junctures in their lives where they must change affiliation, find another career or retire. As poetic as they are political, Zaatari’s works dig far below the usual rhetoric of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the hard shell of newspeak and propaganda on both sides, to consider the most intimate ramifications of devoting one’s life to a cause.


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One evening in September, I ran into Zaatari at the Beirut Art Center, before a screening he had arranged for Johan Grimonprez’s uproarious film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, an experimental documentary about the rise and fall of hijacking spliced with disco and Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II. Zaatari had taken the summer off, and as I arrived, he was explaining to a fellow artist that he was still nominally on vacation “except for meeting with these guys,” he said, meaning me, and a handful of other journalists in the room. Zaatari has an exceptionally strong rapport with the local press corps, in part because journalists often appear as characters in his videos, and he has a long-standing interest in the kind of work that reporters do ­ conducting interviews, collecting documents, structuring narratives from a wealth of factual materials. By my count, I have interviewed Zaatari 12 times in six years. He is that prolific, and his work is both broad and deep enough that each conversation has delved into a dramatically different aspect of his art. In the vernacular of contemporary art, Zaatari is a post-studio artist, meaning that his tools are largely digital, and he doesn’t need a grand space in which to stride, like Jackson Pollock, over enormous paint-spattered canvases. But unlike some other “post-studio” artists, Zaatari stockpiles great quantities of research material, and that research material needs to be kept somewhere. Once, Zaatari described his current apartment as unfinished, with a lot of work-related matter jammed into a room set aside for storage, awaiting a shelving system he wanted to design. More recently, he said his studio was really just a spot on the sofa in his living room with a laptop by his side. Most of his work occurs elsewhere, and much of it involves meeting people ­ interview subjects, writers and intellectuals, fellow artists and filmmakers ­ on their own turf.
Occasionally, I have gone to the offices of the Arab Image Foundation, which Zaatari co-founded in 1997, to watch his older videos and rifle through his library of hard-to-find books on photography. There, Zaatari’s work gains physical heft. The transient nature of digital computer files gives way to the bulkiness of battered VHS cassettes, rolls of film wrapped in paper, boxes of glass-plate negatives, ribbon-tied archive folios, contact prints, transparencies, light boxes, magnifying glasses and the floppy white cotton gloves used to handle vintage photographic material.
The Arab Image Foundation locates, collects and preserves examples of the region’s photographic heritage, but it also doubles as a kind of creative laboratory for its member artists; Zaatari is the most active among them. A good chunk of his individual artwork draws on the archive housed by the foundation, including the collection of Studio Shehrazade, which consists of some 500,000 negatives by Hashem El Madani. Known as the hardest working commercial photographer in Saida, Madani is the subject of a long-term project that Zaatari began 10 years ago. To date, he has published two books of Madani’s photographs, and he plans to do six more. Zaatari is careful to preserve the conditions that informed both the production and the consumption of Madani’s work. He doesn’t simply turn a commercial product into art. The art in question is the more complex manner in which Zaatari moulds Madani’s material. “In this project Madani is clearly the photographer, and I am clearly the artist,” Zaatari says. “I am interested in collecting all of the data around him and his work, and I am looking for photographic phenomena that we ­ contemporary artists or the public in general ­ can learn from.”
Zaatari’s collaboration with Madani and the Arab Image Foundation lends his work a certain tactility, a sensitivity to the material texture of images that is evident even in the way he photographs landscapes and still-lifes. It also explains his affinity not only with journalists but also with commercial photographers, camera technicians and other tradesmen ­ working-class image-makers, if you will ­ who are engaged in many of the same activities as Zaatari but are not considered artists themselves.
At 43, Zaatari is tall and lean with close-cropped, white-flecked hair. He says he was always the last kid on the playground to be picked for sports teams at school, but he is now an avid, athletic swimmer (his coach and several members of his swim team attended the opening of his exhibition in Beirut). He can speak at length and with great enthusiasm on a range of topics, from intellectual property law to the visual codes of Egyptian cinema, Lebanon’s down-and-dirty politics, the metaphors at play in Arabic curses, and the regional differences in Levantine cuisine. In an art scene that is known to be both claustrophobically small and catty, he has a rare gift for getting along with everyone. Because he has taught courses at several universities in Lebanon and instigated numerous formal and informal workshops, many young, up-and-coming artists regard him as an invaluable mentor and confidant ­ which is interesting, because at their age he didn’t really want to be an artist at all.


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As a teenager, Zaatari always wanted to be a filmmaker. At 16, he began taking photographs and making sound recordings, an adolescent’s amateur approximation of a professional filmmaker’s work. His first camera was a clunky, Ukrainian-made Kiev 5 that belonged to his father: he put it to good use, taking pictures of friends, family members and potted plants, along with tanks, fighter jets and explosions. In the summer of 1982, photographing the world beyond the balcony of his parents’ apartment in Saida, the port city in South Lebanon where Zaatari was born, meant photographing the Israeli invasion. Whenever he heard the whistling sounds of fighter jets, he would grab his camera and run to photograph bombs ripping into distant hillsides. The most spectacular image he caught on film was the sky-high collision of an Israeli missile and a Syrian warplane. The invasion got worse, though, and for a brief period Zaatari and his family had to leave home. When they returned, Zaatari discovered that his father’s camera had been stolen. After a yearlong stint in civil engineering, Zaatari studied architecture at the American University of Beirut. “I knew there was no school in Lebanon that would teach me film,” he says. Even today, he adds, “film programs in Lebanon don’t help you to love film. They help you to love your equipment, and to really use your equipment to serve the different markets that exist, such as the television or advertising industries, but they don’t help you to love film as a form or as an art. And they don’t help you see more and more.” After graduation, Zaatari worked for an architecture firm in Beirut for two years. He also taught photography at his alma mater. Then he decided to do a graduate degree and applied to film schools in the United States. He didn’t get in, and settled for media studies at the New School in New York instead. When Zaatari returned to Beirut in 1995, he still wanted to make films but couldn’t find any employment prospects. So he took a job as an executive producer on a morning television program, Aalam al Sabah, for Future TV. A contemporary art scene was just beginning to emerge in Beirut, and the television industry turned out to be a remarkable incubator for young talent. When the civil war came to an end in Lebanon, the country’s media landscape was a mess. Every political party worth its salt had a television station of its own: most of them broadcast only slip-shod news programs, all highly skewed toward the positions of their respective parties. But as the 1990s got underway, the government began regulating the industry and cut more than 50 stations down to around 10. Future TV, established as part of the billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s burgeoning media empire, was one of the newer and more professional stations, which aggressively recruited young creative types and gave them unfettered access to equipment, along with relative freedom to produce experimental work. This situation did not last long. Soon enough, the commercial imperatives of the television industry took over ­ but several contemporary artists in Beirut got their start, like Zaatari, making what must have seemed to casual viewers at the time like some pretty weird TV shows. All of Zaatari’s works from this period ­ such as the video Reflection, from 1995, in which young boy uses a mirror to manipulate sunlight and introduces image-making to the daily rituals of children in the old city of Saida ­ were originally screened on his morning show. “It didn’t fit,” he says. “I would just do [these works] and instead of hiding them, I would show them, just as filler or whatever.” By 1997, the year he left Future TV (and also the year he co-founded the Arab Image Foundation), Zaatari was making videos on his own and showing them in venues that fell outside of existing art spaces and the local gallery system, which didn’t take to video at all. For example, All Is Well on the Border, from 1997, was screened at Théâtre de Beyrouth. The 43-minute work ­ which delves into the experiences of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli detention centres and explores notions of heroism and suffering against a backdrop of ideological indoctrination ­ was spliced between lectures by sociologists and anthropologists as part of a programme of events organised to kick-start a then-stagnating debate about the resistance and the band of villages in South Lebanon that remained under Israeli occupation until 2000.
By 2001, Zaatari’s work was travelling regularly, and earning international prominence. Soon after, the onslaught of international exhibitions about Beirut, Lebanon, the Middle East and the Arab world began. From Catherine David’s “Contemporary Arab Representations” to Suzanne Cotter’s “Out of Beirut” and Lebanon’s first (and only) national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Zaatari’s work has been included in almost all of them. Zaatari’s migration to the art world, however, was in retrospect gradual and slow. Just six years ago, he characterised his work as unclassifiable, unsellable and out of circulation. “One day they will become meaningful,” he said of his videos. But at the time, he felt they were unavailable to viewers, except for those who were able to catch the occasional screenings. “You do work that is not born on the channel of reaching out to an audience,” he said. “It is born on the sea, waiting for someone to fish for it.” “I always wanted to be a filmmaker, not an artist,” says Zaatari, “but it ended up this way for many reasons. I think you just decide where you want to be and this decision has implications. I think it’s healthy to be in between, neither this nor that. I can’t remember how I became an artist, but I also can’t say that I was resistant to the idea. There were a few points where my work was slipping into the territory of art. Anyway, I was lucky because in Beirut in the 1990s, there were absolutely no limits between film and art, so you could easily navigate between different disciplines without having to cross borders.”

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These days, Zaatari belongs to a group of artists ­ including Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué and Walid Sadek, among others ­ who have fundamentally shifted the terms of contemporary art in Lebanon from a discipline born of fine art traditions to a field that draws on media studies, visual culture and critical theory. Lebanon’s protracted history of violence figures into all of the work that this group has done. More often that not, however, the point is not to make work explicitly “about”, say, the civil war, but rather to scrutinise phenomena that have arisen from conflicts, and to address through art issues that have become difficult to discuss in more conventional public formats such as the local press. Zaatari’s work in particular challenges what the curator Rasha Salti terms the “uncritical consensus” characterizing Lebanon’s post-war political discourse.
But this is not to everyone’s taste. There are plenty of art aficionados in Beirut, young and old alike, who find Zaatari’s work intellectually admirable but emotionally flat. Zaatari’s standing as an important artist in the prime of his career is more clearly seen and acknowledged abroad than at home. In general, the value of documentary-style practices is more intensely contested than celebrated in Beirut. Like many of his critical and conceptual peers, Zaatari also disavows much of the art that has been (and is being) made in Lebanon. He doesn’t see himself as part of a local artistic lineage. Of the older generation of painters and sculptors, he says: “They speak a different language. I don’t necessarily look down on [them or their work] but I look with absolute indifference.”
Zaatari’s oeuvre to date includes more than 30 single-channel videos and multimedia installations, six authored or co-edited publications, one major urban intervention in the old city of Saida and two comprehensive film programmes. His work involves a highly sophisticated, multifaceted process of amassing huge quantities of stuff, such as archival photographs, ephemeral objects, personal affects, interview transcripts, eyewitness testimonies, old letters, diaries, journals, press clippings, anecdotal snapshots, home movies, cassette tapes and seemingly random knickknacks. These materials are then sorted and filtered and distilled into concrete bodies of work. Many of those works transcend their local context because Zaatari shapes them subtly, sometimes using the narrative structures of crime fiction or detective stories, in which something or someone is being actively searched for and pursued. A given line of inquiry could yield a wealth of works in video, photography, installation and text, which means that Zaatari’s projects tend to grow, change, expand and thicken over time. Each of the five sections in “Earth of Endless Secrets” corresponds to a video, a subject of Zaatari’s research (usually a geographic territory that has been subjected to invasion) and a character (usually a former fighter who works with images in some way). In the video In This House, from 2005, Zaatari meets a photojournalist named Ali Hashisho, who tells him about his days as a leftist militant. When the Israelis withdrew from Saida in 1985, Hashisho and his colleagues took over a house in the nearby village of Ain al Mir. They stayed for six years. The owners of the house had fled, but Hashisho assumed they would return, so before he left, he buried a letter for them in the garden behind their house, explaining himself and apologising for not doing more to protect their property from theft and plunder. Zaatari tells Hashisho’s story using the pages of his diary, his ID and business cards and the souvenirs he collected from “the front”, including bits of rock, acorns and dried leaves. Zaatari also travels to Ain al Mir and unearths the letter, preserved in a spent mortar casing for 15 years.
In All Is Well on the Border, he meets Mohammad Abu Hammane, a former fighter displaced from South Lebanon to the suburbs of Beirut, where he is working, temporarily, as a cameraman (in one key scene, he teaches Zaatari how to manipulate images by adjusting the aperture and the zoom on his lens, an example of the camera’s capacity to distort rather than represent reality). Layered onto the video is the story of another former fighter, Nabih Awada, aka Neruda, who joined the resistance as a member of the Communist Party, was captured by Israel in 1986, kept for two years until he turned 18 and sentenced (he was released 10 years later, in 1998). Zaatari tells Neruda’s story through the letters he sent home to his mother (Neruda’s mother shared those letters with the artist during the making of the film). In Tabiaah Samitah, from 2008, Zaatari ventures toward Shebaa Farms and catches up with Mohammad Abu Hammane, now living in the nearby village of Hubbariyeh. An enigmatic work, entirely devoid of dialogue, Tabiaah Samitah glances in on the labours of two men ­ one old (played by Abu Hammane), one young. The former is wrapping explosives in cardboard and packing tape, the latter is delicately mending the frayed cuff of an army-issue jacket with needle and thread. The video’s long opening shot shows the two men working in a drab room at dawn. The power supply clicks on and off. Daylight seeps in slowly. The morning call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. The scene breaks and we see shot and counter-shot of the old man’s face, the young man’s face, the two men facing each other in profile. Then, suddenly, we are outside looking at the landscape of Hubbariyeh, all tall green trees framing a low, serpentine stonewall that winds into the distance alongside a narrow footpath. The video ends with the older man trudging along that path ­ with a rifle and a rucksack, his jacket repaired, his lunch tied up in a plastic bag ­ until he disappears. Though his purpose and destination remain known, the work holds out the ominous possibility that this old man, a resistance fighter long past retirement age, is heading to Shebaa Farms with a homemade bomb.

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All of the works in “Earth of Endless Secrets” grapple with geographies that have been subject to invasion and occupation, and Zaatari explores how such places may be known through the material he gathers. He considers how the rhythms of occupation and withdrawal give rise to ideologies of resistance and, in turn, he questions what the ideologies of resistance have produced.
Zaatari often speaks of his work in archaeological terms, and he characterises it as a kind of excavation, digging for relics in territories as they become available (the southern border zone has been done; Shebaa Farms awaits). Works like All Is Well on the Border, In This House, and Tabiaah Samitah may be part of a larger effort to examine the wreckage of the left in Lebanon, which became so enamoured with the romance of revolution that it lost its way, fell apart and forfeited its role in the resistance to a right-wing religious party. But Zaatari insists that he does not side with one strain (communist) over the other (Hizbullah).
“Both resistances are the same,” he says. “But if the communist resistance had not been broken, I could not have done this research. For those fighters, the idea of retiring was not clear; the social support was not there. In a way I am unmaking the notion of resistance fighters. They are my age and of my generation. They may have been from a different class, but it was an attractive class. They were not at home while I was at home and bored. They were independent from their families. They were all together. They were out in nature. There’s definitely something there about male friendship. But not all resistance fighters would be interesting to me. They would have to open up in a non-heroic way, in a human way.”
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review. She lives in Beirut.

 

 

 

Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Sfeir-Semler Gallery is delighted to present Earth of Endless Secrets, a comprehensive solo exhibition by the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari.
Earth of Endless Secrets refers to an ongoing project by Akram Zaatari that consists of unearthing, collecting and examining a wide range of documents that testify to the cultural and political conditions of Lebanon’s postwar society. Zaatari’s artistic practice involves the study and investigation of the way these documents straddle, conflate, or confuse notions of history and memory. By analyzing and re-contextualizing audiotapes, video footage, photographs, journals, personal collections, found objects, interviews and recollections, Zaatari explores the “dynamics that govern the state of image-making in situations of war.” With an almost archeological eye, the artist reveals the intimate layers of history contained in records of everyday experience.
The exhibition includes photographs and videos organized into four chapters each focused around four of Zaatari’s video projects. In All is Well on the Border, Zaatari presents three staged testimonies that shed light on the experiences of prisoners held in detention centers during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. In this tribute to Jean-Luc Godard's film Ici et ailleurs, notions of heroism and suffering emerge amid a dissection of the codes of representation and ideological indoctrination during times of conflict. Shot between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, This Day examines the relationship between mental and actual geographies in the Middle East, investigating various modes of access to information including travel, television, and the Internet. In This House presents the story of a letter buried years ago by a former resistance fighter in the garden behind an occupied house in South Lebanon. The filmmaker endeavors to find it, but in so doing he provokes the ire and anxiety of the house’s residents, neighbors and nearby intelligence officials. Yet, the search yields joyfully unexpected results. In Nature Morte, an old, wise man sits making explosives with a young, baby-faced man who is carefully mending the frayed cuff of a jacket. Zaatari offers a meditation on the tender relationship between these two men and the unknown end of their implied operation.
Zaatari’s work often examines technologies of communication and notions of surveillance, foregrounding the way different media apparatuses get employed in the service of power, resistance, and memory. His work reflects on the shifting nature of borders and the production and circulation of images in the context of the current political divisions of the Middle East. As co-founder of the visual history of the Middle East. A major project by Zaatari has focused on the archive of studio Sherazade in Saida and the work of the photographer Hashem el Madani.
Earth of Endless Secrets was co-produced by Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Kunstverein München, and the Beirut Art Center, and was exhibited at the Kunstverein München in March 2009. Previously, Zaatari’s work has been the subject of one-person exhibitions with Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Art Basel (2007), the Grey Art Gallery, New York (2005), Portikus, Frankfurt (2004), and the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels (2002). His work has also been exhibited in group shows and biennales around the world, including at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2008), the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), the Sao Paolo Biennale (2006), Sydney Biennale (2006), and Gwanju Biennale in South Korea (2006). Born in Saida in 1966, Akram Zaatari lives and works in Beirut.