Picturing Change

FotoFest 2014 Focuses on Contemporary Arab Photography


IMAGE ABOVE: Nermine Hammam, Knust, 2011.  From the series Upekkha.  Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London.

Hicham Benohoud
Untitled, 2010
Courtesy of the artist and Atelier 21

Houston’s origins as an international photography mecca date back to the early 1980s, when Frederick Baldwin, Wendy Watriss, and Petra Benteler founded FotoFest, an international non-profit photographic arts and education organization.

More than 30 years later, FotoFest is gearing up for the 15th iteration of its International Biennial of Photography and Photo-related Art. View from Inside, the biennial’s principal exhibition, features 48 contemporary Arab artists from 13 countries, as well as numerous additional artists and scholars who are involved with exhibitions, workshops, and other related events at participating venues throughout Houston.

The aim is also to foster greater cultural awareness between the Arab region and Western audiences, particularly U.S. audiences, who have seen much less of it than have Europeans. “This is the kind of exchange that FotoFest was created to initiate and has been essential to its mission from the very beginning,” Watriss says.

The biennial’s lead curator Karin Adrian von Roques, one of the world’s leading experts on contemporary Arab art, met Baldwin and Watriss several years ago through Houston gallerist Deborah Colton. They were impressed by von Roques’s more than 20 years of experience advocating for Arab artists and, as they dove into Roques’s collection of artist files and images, they began to talk seriously about a possible exhibition of contemporary Arab photography. That conversation and subsequent ones were informed by von Roques’s scholarly background in Islamic art, her desire to add substantially to a field that was not yet fully researched, and questions about what Watriss calls “the gaps in understanding that exist between (Western nations) and the Arab World, particularly when it comes to notions of art.”

Over the next three years von Roques and Watriss, with Baldwin’s help, did research together in Paris and Bonn, looking at video, photography and media-related art. They all agreed that the subject matter, the artists, and the artworks demanded more than any single exhibition could deliver; there were enough materials to warrant an entire biennial program. With the appointment of von Roques as lead curator, View from Inside began to take shape.

Aiming to provide a diverse yet holistic selection of photo- and media-related practices from a wide array of Arab cultures, von Roques chose works by artists living and working in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. For some of the artists, the biennial serves as the U.S. debut of their work, and many will travel to Houston to participate in lectures, tours, and other programs.

Nabil, Self Portrait.
Youssef Nabil
Self-portrait at night, Paris, 2005
Courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris/ Brussels

Some biennial exhibition highlights include Jowhara AlSaud’s photographic approach to censorship through the manipulation of portraits; Hassan Hajjaj, whose video installation My Rock Stars Experiment presents a cultural fusion of Moroccan craftsmanship and contemporary art; historian-turned-visual-artist Huda Lutfi’s focus on narratives of Cairo; and the photographs of Samer Mohdad, who declares in his manifesto, “I am using photography to reach out to the force that created life in the universe.”

Although devoted to a focus on Arab art, von Roques did not want to curate View from Inside by way of a strict singular theme. “Instead, I selected works that touched my soul,” she says. As a result, a general (and generous) theme emerged: “change” as it relates to matters of identity, location/dislocation, heritage, religion, tradition, and more.

Von Roques has paid special attention to conversations with her Arab friends in Quatar, a political territory located in Western Asia. She remembers being struck by the situations they were describing and the cultural shifts they were experiencing as a result of global change. Streets, neighborhoods, and gatherings that used to be calm were now busy, at times chaotic, with increased tourism and mass markets. Traditions that had been in place for generations were now not only being questioned, but drastically altered, replaced, or altogether abandoned. Identities were becoming more complicated as well. For example, biennial artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein, who  is -of Palestinian origin, was born in Kuwait, has a Kuwaiti passport, and works in the United Arab Emirates.

“You can feel it these days; we are all about to change,” says von Roques, citing protests and other expressions of freedom. Recognizing art-making as a major freedom-generator, she further explains that the biennial artists reflect these circumstances, psychologies, and responses from different angles.

FotoFest is going through changes of its own, having hired Steven Evans as executive director, the organization’s first non-founding leadership role. (Baldwin and Watriss aren’t retiring; they’ve got too many projects under way.) The arrival of Evans, who has run San Antonio’s Linda Pace Foundation and Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, and is a former Dia: Beacon managing director, coincides with another change, as FotoFest moves its offices from Vine Street Studios just north of downtown to Silver Street Studios in the Sixth Ward.

Also changing: this year’s official FotoFest exhibition is best understood as one big show spread out over four venues—Silver Street Studios, Winter Street Studios, Spring Street Studios, and Williams Tower Gallery—rather than four distinct exhibitions, as in previous biennials.

Lutfi, Crutches (detail).
Huda Lutfi
Marching on Crutches (detail), 2012
Courtesy of the artist.

What’s not changing is that the biennial will continue to include a wide array of programs, including forums, panels, films, concerts, and poetry readings at Rice University; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Doubletree Hilton. Other returning biennial highlights include the Meeting Place Portfolio Review for Artists, which connects 500 international artists with more than 200 curators, gallerists, publishers and collectors; the exhibition Discoveries of the Meeting Place, which showcases standouts from the previous biennial’s Meeting Place; and FotoFest’s International Fine Print Auction.

And as usual, unofficial FotoFest programming at 100 venues around Houston is a free-for-all, since participating spaces aren’t bound by FotoFest themes.

Will change come? Life says definitely. Does change teach us something about each other? FotoFest 2014 says positively—if we look closely.


FotoFest 2014
Various venues
March 15-April 27