I walked into the New Museum’s Here And Elsewhere exhibit recently. A major presentation of contemporary art from the Middle East. Much of it is quite predictable, some of it is downright amateurish, a few terribly is derivative and horribly scarred by the pretensions of modern Western contemporary art discourse. Some was quite disappointing as it desperately attempted to, as pointed out by one critic, that it “..takes our attention away from the political subject and draws it toward the artist’s techniques.” – a statement that I would use as a criticism of a work of art, but in fact was offered by way of praise by the writer. There are however moments of it that are luminous. For example, the gorgeous set of studio photography works from Hashem El-Madani.
Hashim El-Madani’s striking series of portraits of Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians in the Southern Lebanon city of Saida are a remarkable body of work. In a review of portrait photography, Mikanowski’s discussed El-Madani’s work, saying:
Madani was a craftsman, providing a vital service for the people of his adopted city, taking photographs for ID cards, passports, weddings and christenings. But he was also an artist of rare power. His portraits preserve their subjects’ individuality. Unlike the work of artists like Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus, these photos don’t attempt to unmask or expose their subjects. Madani’s work is intimate without being intrusive. His photographs are often masterful, but they can also be rote or workmanlike, and their full impact only becomes clear when they are viewed in aggregate.
What Madani’s archive amounts to is an entire city, in faces. History moves through these photographs like a breeze through an open window. Fashions slowly change. The Ba’ath Party sets up shop on the floor above, and politicians come in for their campaign portraits. Palestinian militants stop by. Some look like soldiers, and others look like anxious kids. American oil executives come nodding in for a brief appearance, before ducking back out. When the civil war starts, two agents from Syrian Intelligence find time to stand for a hand-colored portrait. In it, they carry the same expression of contentment and self-assurance found in August Sander’s portraits of Weimar-era bankers and bakers.
There is an excellent online presentation of the images over at the Tate website from the exhibition of this work back in 2007
I was moved by these images. They are beautiful – I use that word intentionally. Yes, they are also powerful, and perhaps most importantly, individual. But also beautiful. Each photograph begs to tell a story and my only disappointment with the exhibit was that there was little or no information about the men and women captured in the photo. Other than the rudimentary, cold, basic biographical details. Every portrait led to this desire, this need to not just read the photo itself, but to hear the words, to be told the histories. Who are these women, what is their story, where do they come from, how did they become so close, what adventures and sorrows did they share, what have they lost, what do they hold on to?
This is beautiful work, and marvelous portraiture. It reminded me so much of Sidibe and Keita’s work. There too there was this moment when photography transcended its own technical, artistic and commercial / consumer pretensions. In a review of the exhibition, Robyn Creswell of Harpers magazine was also similarly struck by the power and beauty of El-Madani’s work saying that:
For me, the revelation of the show was the studio portraits of Hashem al Madani. Madani ran a small commercial shop, called Studio Scheherazade, in Saida, in southern Lebanon, for more than fifty years beginning in 1953. He sometimes took a hundred portraits of ordinary people in a day — for IDs, weddings, graduations, and everything else. Madani made no attempt to unmask his sitters or to subject them to ironic scrutiny. They were allowed to pose just as they wanted, which gives his work a compelling mixture of earnestness and make-believe.
I recommend that you take a slow walk through this exhibit, and definitely slow down a bit to see these beautiful photographs.