Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography
Reed College's Cooley Gallery, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., through Sept. 30th
Long before the age of terrorism as we know it, the American media largely depicted the Arab world as populated by undesirable "others," through representations ranging from destitute and impoverished to militant and fanatical. But in Mapping Sitting, which is comprised of photographs from the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation's archive of more than 70,000 photographs, we see a strikingly different view through the lenses of indigenous photographers. The installation presents Arabs in familiar everyday situations: pedestrians navigating Tripoli's bustling Tell Square; swimmers eagerly posing on a stretch of Lebanese coastline; and thousands of portraits snapped for passports and other forms of identification. Curators Walid Raad, an artist and professor at Cooper Union, and Akram Zaatari, a video artist and cofounder of the Arab Image Foundation, effectively counter Western media's portrayal of the Arab world with apolitical imagery that is both homey and familiar.
Although these images contrast the skewed perspective of the Western press, they are still, like all historical documents, constructions. Given Raad's work with The Atlas Group, "an imaginary foundation" that maps the contemporary history of Lebanon through both factual and fictional documents, he is acutely aware of the mechanics of history-making. Through projects that have included a video installation about a hostage captured by Arab radicals and a documentary history of the approximately 245 car bombs used in the Lebanese civil war, Raad has fabricated historical fictions that could easily pass for the real thing. This approach surfaces in Mapping Sitting, in which the archival photographs are arranged in compositionally flawless grids and ghostly videos for maximum aesthetic impact. Across one wall, Raad and Zaatari have laboriously organized more than 7,000 wallet-sized I.D. photos, based on the color of the subjects' shirts, hair, and the studios' backdrop. From across the gallery, the portraits lapse into a grid of undulating tones. Up close they look like pages from decades-old yearbooks. It's a powerful metaphor for how histories are constructed, in which seemingly black and white fragments from a bygone era assume an authoritative role in defining an absolute interpretation of the whole.