of Akram Zaatari's
Him + Her
words Ilker Hepkaner
Akram Zaatari is always on the road.
When New York's Guggenheim Museum celebrated the acquisition of his film Him + Her (2012) with a screening on October 9, 2018 , his solo exhibition The Fold - Space, time and the image had just opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Ten days later, his video works The Script (2018) and Nour (1995) met audiences at Turner Contemporary in Kent, England. Earlier this year, his work appeared at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. Zaatari is from Lebanon and most of his work focuses on issues primarily within the Lebanese context. However, his artistic voice is sometimes better understood through the journeys his works take. The artist says he has moved on from Him+Her, a work he first made in 2001, and then updated in 2012, however this film, its production story, and its reception expose an important thread in his career. Zaatari's work as a Lebanese artist and archivist makes him one of the leading artistic voices of the Arab region, however there is one more reason why Zaatari is important in understanding the region through visual artistic production. Zaatari's work is not about the roots, it is about the routes, and Him + Her is an exemplary demonstration of the many destinations his work takes us to.
Him + Her fixes its gaze at a specific moment in Arab visual culture: 20th century black and white studio photography capturing upper class urbanites. In 1998, Istanbul-born Armenian photographer Van Leo (born Leon Boyadjian) opened up about his profession, image-making practice, and personal life in a three-hour interview with Zaatari inside his studio in Cairo. The exchange between the two men flowed into delightful tangents: the changing clientele of a photography studio in Cairo from the 1940s to the late 1990s, the multifaceted urban history of Cairo, Van Leo's rejection of relationships with powerful leaders, and his auto-portraits and reflections on life as a single man. The centerpiece of Him+Her, however, is a client-directed/authored picture series of 12 images capturing Nadia, an Arab woman who takes off one piece of clothing in each picture until she is completely nude. The artist reveals that Nadia was his grandmother, and what brought him to Cairo on a plane was coming across one of her rather shocking pictures one day in a family closet.
Many routes pass through Him + Her. The film is an interview that took place in Cairo between a Lebanese artist and an Armenian photographer originally born in Istanbul. Their conversation flows in Arabic, English, and French. In fact, Zaatari told the audience at the Guggenheim that he purposefully used English and French to see if Van Leo would respond in a language other than Arabic, and Van Leo answered back in perfect grammar, without skipping a beat. Considering the photographer's life and clientele, this comes as surprise to nobody: In addition to upper-class Cairenes, Van Leo photographed British colonizers and Europeans who lived in Egypt at his studio. The video is edited as a pit-stop on a journey, too. It starts and ends with aerial shots of Cairo taken from a commercial plane seat, giving the impression that the camera is already on the move and Van Leo's studio in Cairo was merely a pause.
From this transnational angle, Zaatari's work is a subversive act in relation to a certain thread of Orientalist thinking in the 20th century. Having arbitrarily carved countries from the post-World War I Middle East, the Brits and the French - the colonial powers - and the Americans - their imperialist successors - are keen on seeing the region as a collective of enemy nation-states, conveniently demarcated via borders. In fact, stories like Van Leo's or projects like Zaatari's Arab Image Foundation, which brings together imagery across the Arab region, subvert the state-centric understandings of the "Middle East" prevalent in diplomatic circles: the human landscape, cultural mosaics, and collective memory still defy its artificial borders. Languages, dialects, cultures, families, and as in Van Leo's case, images, don't recognize borders and remind the audiences of a borderless past and the contemporary currents running through state formations. While doing so, Zaatari's work also doesn't give into the other thread of Orientalist thinking which lumps every context of the so-called East into one cluster. Stories like Van Leo's connect the dots in history, but don't blend them into a hazy Orientalist picture of the East.
Narrating a borderless memory and a transnational present is not the only way Zaatari's works hop over borders. Take his video Letter to a Refusing Pilot, which reconstructs the narrative of an Israeli pilot refusing to bomb a middle school in Zaatari's hometown Saida during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When the video released to global audiences in 2013, it renewed the conscientious objection debate within the hyper-militarized Israeli society. As a narrative of invasion departing from the official state narratives, and as a visual exploration of a war rumor in Saida, Letter to a Refusing Pilot raised the question how one decides to go into war and kill. What was the agency of the soldier under strict commands? At the Guggenheim event, Zaatari described some of his work, "Letter to a Refusing Pilot" included, as performative: those works of his which don't stay in the image, go out of the frame, and make people debate issues regarding their lives. With that example, Zaatari's work crossed the currently-closed Lebanon-Israel border and stirred a consciousness debate in a country which is continuously at war. This doesn't mean that Zaatari's work is geared towards an Israeli audience, nor does it have to. In fact, when the curator of a regional art festival in Israel attempted to use Zaatari and four other artists' works without their permission in 2017, being a BDS supporter, Zaatari retracted his work from the festival. Zaatari's message does not go wherever others wish, in fact the artist makes sure his message stays on track against appropriation.
The artist doesn't consider Him + Her as one of his performative works, but the piece's special production history necessitates some discussion. Due to technological developments and an archival discovery, Zaatari updated Him + Her in 2012, and for this reason, it is a piece that now requires context and explanation before its screening. At the Guggenheim, Zaatari took the stage before his work, and walked the audience through how he renewed the piece in 2012. Him + Her's 2001 version was built on three sets of visuals: Van Leo's testimony, recorded in SD video, reprints of Van Leo's work handed to Zaatari by the photographer himself, and 4 pictures of Nadia, the woman who took off one piece of clothing in each pose during a self-directed a photoshoot with Van Leo. In his talk, Zaatari explained that, after the advent of high definition image, he took the chance of rendering images he scanned for Him + Her's 2001 version in high definition. With this, Zaatari could blow up images handed to him by Van Leo to larger sizes although Van Leo's filmed testimony stayed in its original size. The updated version of the film, and the artist's accompanying commentary capture the anxiety that Van Leo shows in the interview: that technology advances and some people fade into the backdrop. In the new version, technological advancement, something Van Leo can't stop talking about in the interview, leaves its mark on the piece, slightly overshadowing the photographer's own image.
The other development which gave Him + Her its latest shape emerged from the archives. Van Leo closed down his studio due to health issues shortly after his interview with Zaatari, and he donated thousands of negatives to the American University of Cairo (AUC). When Lara Baladi and Negar Azami of the Arab Image Foundation, an exceptional research institute and archive focusing on Arab visual culture, which Zaatari co-founded in 1997, negotiated the acquisition of 5000 negatives of Van Leo, Zaatari gained access to some missing pieces from Van Leo's archive for Him + Her. Zaatari located the entirety of Nadia's self-authored serial pictures, which originally consisted of 12 pieces in contrast to the four Zaatari had to work with in the beginning. Locating the missing pieces in Nadia's photoshoot in the archives gave Zaatari the chance to completely narrate her transformation in the film. With this, the archive left its own mark on Zaatari's work. However, this mark did not follow a linear relation, where the archive opens up new possibilities to the artist. In fact, Zaatari was able to get a hold of these missing pieces through the Arab Image Foundation. He contributed to a new take on visual archives in the region by co-founding the Arab Image Foundation, and as this foundation expanded its own collection, Zaatari could change his own artwork. The two mutually constitute each other: the artist constructs the archive and the archive updates the artist's work, but this reciprocity is not limited in the creation process, it also touches at the reception: now it is very difficult to interpret Zaatari's work without his archival practice, especially in the case of works like Him + Her.
At the Guggenheim, Zaatari's narrative helped the audience understand why the work was dated as 2001-2012, why it had two different image resolutions, and for those who saw the first version, why the second one had more images of Nadia. From a conceptual point of view, Zaatari's pretextual intervention, which dictated the audience to see the work not through their own eyes and experiences but by following the artist's guidelines about the history of the artwork, killed the narrative twist in Him+Her. The video repeatedly states that the artist embarked on this journey to interview Van Leo because he found a nude picture of his grandmother, giving a fictional dimension to Zaatari's relationship with Nadia. Due to Zaatari's commentary before the screening, we all knew Nadia wasn't Zaatari's grandmother. However, earlier screenings of the film didn't include any explanation by Zaatari. Upon hearing the negative answer at a screening in Ismailiyya, one of the audience members said: "So, she is our grandmother, all of us."
The essence of this warm exchange resonates in Zaatari's work and its reception. Although he focuses on certain stories in the Arab region, like he did in Him+Her, Zaatari's narratives now belong to a community larger than his focus. His works take variant roads, debunks obstacles, and visualizes stories that resonate across borders. Maybe that's why not knowing Nadia's true identity is okay. Her ferocity will be claimed by many people wishing to be her grandchildren.
Video still from Akram Zaatari's Her + Him (2001-12) digital color video with sound, 31 min., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. With the permission of the artist.