Stereotyping the Stereotypes: Tarek Al-Ghoussein in conversation with Anthony Downey
02 November 2012
Tarek Al-Ghoussein is an artist based in the UAE. His work has appeared in international exhibitions throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East. His work is also featured in several anthologies and a monograph on his work In Absentia was published by Page One and The Third Line in 2009. Al–Ghoussein’s work is in permanent collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Royal Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, Darat Al–Funun in Amman and Mathaf Museum in Qatar. In this interview for Ibraaz, the artist explores the development of his work and how, through the form and technique of the self-portrait, it engages with preconceptions of what is meant by ‘Arabness’ in the eyes of both Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Al-Ghoussein also addresses what he considers to be a failure of sorts in his early photojournalist work and how his later body of photographs attempts to unpack what is meant by belonging and identity in a region where such ideals are not only beset by glib media representations but are also underwritten by the popular stereotypes of Arabness that circulate throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Anthony Downey: The very first work I saw of yours was War Room (2004), and I think I saw this in Sharjah in 2005. Could we talk a little about this, as it stands apart from your subsequent work, but I think certain elements in it come through in your more recent work.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein: Yes, I had two projects at the 2005 Sharjah Biennial, and War Room was one of them. During the first Gulf War in 1991, I was in Egypt and travel was very difficult for me. I was following developments on television and began documenting the reporting with a Polaroid camera. After the images were first exhibited, someone wrote about the work and referred to me as a ‘poor suffering Kuwaiti artist who was reacting to the war’ – nothing could have been further from the truth, as I recorded the events from the comfort of a hotel room. Seven years later, after moving to Sharjah, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait occurred and I returned to the same format of documenting the televised coverage of the events. It was at this time that I began to notice the similarity between reporting on the conflict and other representations of the war, such as in movies and cartoons. I started discussing this with a colleague, Chris Kienke, and we began to work together on documentation. In thinking about exhibiting the work, we ultimately decided to arrange the images randomly using light boxes, which allowed the viewer to be immersed in the glow of the images in a manner similar to television viewing.
AD: There are two things that interested me about this work: there seems to be an issue around the homogeneity of representation but equally there is a very formal engagement with imagery and the representation of images. I don’t know if that resonates with your thinking about it but that re-presentation of images of war seems to be quite interesting.
TAG: Sure, the homogeneity of the images, regardless of their source, relates to the tendency to treat all references to war (i.e., cartoons, film representations, coverage of actual events, etc.) in the same manner and I found that very engaging.
AD: The other element that came out of that work was the way in which it engaged with stereotypes and the stereotypical imagery of the war itself. I see this re-emerging as a component of your Self-Portrait series. Could you talk a little bit about that in relation to this series?
TAG: Yes, of course. I have spent a great majority of my life outside the Middle East before coming to teach at Sharjah. I lived in Japan, America and the UK. I am very much an Arab but my upbringing was characterised by significant exposure to the west. What particularly bothered me during this time was the perception of the Arab – especially in the media – and I wanted to address that. It was always the Palestinian terrorist or the Arab terrorist, which denies the ability to form a nuanced view of individuals. I also found it strange that we were considered the terrorists while others were ‘freedom fighters’, although both ideals share similar historical situations. The journey of the keffiyeh as a symbol of Arabness or Arab identity offers a way for me to address these issues. The keffiyeh was a very potent image because of Yasser Arafat’s appearance in the media. Perhaps Arafat’s representation as a military figure was instrumental in propagating the assumption that the Palestinian cause was connected to only military action. Therefore, the keffiyeh was used as a starting point for the self-portraits. That early body of work is probably my least favourite, unless the images are shown together as a group. Many people tend to treat the images superficially, believing that they represent a ‘terrorist’, but for me, these images work together to create a more nuanced narrative when they are in a group. The relation between the images allows other stories to emerge.
AD: Is that reflected in the formal composition of those images? Because they remind me of Bernd and Hilla Becher, that new objectivity approach to photography that is very much about framing and the objective sensibility being used in the taking of the photograph itself.
TAG: I’ve never heard that reference but it’s very interesting and makes sense. The New Topographics movement from the 1970s influenced me greatly. I am sympathetic to the issues they were addressing. One thing about my early work is that it is very concerned with formal structure and I think there is a connection to the Bechers’ work in terms of composition and formal awareness.
AD: One of the things that strikes me consistently in these images is that the figure remains alone. It is therefore very illusive, difficult to pin down as a social fact, and it is also allusive in the way that it suggests a narrative. It is not just simply the image of a man with a keffiyeh in a desert: these images suggest a before and an after, some sort of narrative directs our attention to something beyond the frame of reference that we have in the photograph itself. Does that resonate with your thinking on these images?
TAG: Absolutely. Some viewers tend to look at the image in terms of mere content rather than framing, but for me what comes before and after the images – their extended points of reference and the suggestion of something else – is very important.
AD: Do you think that is reflected in other elements in these images? We seem to be on the verge of something between destruction and reconstruction. I see a lot of building materials that have either been dumped or are part of a building in process – although that is not made clear – and that would suggest an allegorical reading of these images.
TAG: I’m glad you picked up on that. That hasn’t been discussed at all yet in relation to my work. I am very interested in the relation between construction and destruction, but in the line between what is true documentation and what is created. I am also interested in what is found and what I bring to the formation of the scene. I look for places in a way that I would imagine a film director does. The references in these images are conceived of as sets for me, something to construct and perhaps deconstruct.
AD: Whenever I think of the mise en scène in your images – the way in which the protagonist is put in the scene – I also think of mise en abyme, a term used when you face an abyss or are placed between two mirrors that refract reality into the distance. This is a comment more than a question, but when we are looking at these images there is a consistent questioning of the viewer’s position – a placing into an abyss of interpretation – that questions any easy assertions or understanding of what it is we are looking at.
TAG: I appreciate the comment as it relates to my intention to make images that result in multi-dimensional interpretations.
AD: I am going to turn the conversation to something else. One of the things I find perhaps a bit disconcerting is that very few commentators talk about the formal component of these works as art. They seem to be consistently positioned as being about something that can over-politicise their import. Can you talk about the performative element at work here, because I think this is critical? I see these works as drawing on a history of performance art – a sense of being in a specific environment – as much as they draw upon a Palestinian/Arabic identity.
TAG: One of the reasons I stopped using the keffiyeh in these images was that I became suspicious of an over-reliance on Palestinian identity. I remember I had an exhibition at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai, and a writer from The National newspaper asked me: ‘How does this relate to Gaza?’ Everyone keeps looking for that – the commentary on Palestinian identity – and I felt like it was both too restrictive and too simplistic. An anonymous figure allows a greater interpretive range. I was also thinking that focusing on the performative element may also be too restrictive. I would say that the work is more about intervening or interacting with what is found in a particular place.
AD: One image I was very taken by – and this may take us to a political reading, although I am hoping to get away from such a deterministic reading – is Self-Portrait No.2 (Looking at Palestine) (2003). Obviously there is a reading there that could be political but the image I am most reminded of – and I don’t know if this was conscious on your behalf – is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wandered Above the Sea of Fog (1818) and the anonymity of that individual in Friedrich’s painting, standing as he does staring into what is a sublime backdrop. I was also taken by the fact that the sublime, for Edmund Burke, is as much about fear in the face of nature and history as it is about exultation. Does that resonate with your understanding of that image?
TAG: Some of the things you talk about came much later. I didn’t know Friedrich’s work at the time. I showed Self-Portrait No.2 (Looking at Palestine) at the 2003 Sharjah Biennial and in a subsequent review in Artforum, the reviewer made that reference as well. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to say if I was making a reference to a work and I am not saying this in defence but I didn’t know that work at the time. The specific reference for me was not there but the notions of being small in a big space, insignificant also, are certainly there. That image for me was the most specific for two reasons: it was the first time I had seen Palestine, and secondly, immediately after I took that picture, I was stopped by the police and they questioned me. Taking photographs of yourself in a keffiyeh staring at Palestine from Jordan is apparently a far from innocent activity. It was also an epiphany of sorts, a revelation. I was laughing when you said fear just earlier because there was a lot of fear too about being questioned for 24 hours about that image. But it was also an epiphany because I realised that the keffiyeh has such a strong reference in the Arab mind. It was not just in the western mind that it symbolised terrorism; the Jordanian police felt the same thing. They thought I may be planning a terrorist act or recording a suicide video. That’s the only image that is titled because the viewer had to know that this was the Dead Sea and that I was looking at Palestine. I think the image changes completely – or does not resonate as much – if you don’t know that.
AD: I guess the other point I was trying to make about Caspar David Friedrich’s painting and your photograph is that both suggest a moment of existential crisis. Would you agree with that reading or is it too much?
TAG: I think the figure looking out over the Dead Sea, in that light, and in the way it is composed, does touch upon an existential crisis of sorts. The stillness of the water, looking over the shoulders of the figure towards a landscape beyond … all of these existential feelings are triggered and that is why it was problematic for me to only show one or two of the images. If you don’t see them as a group they become very specific and the viewer tends to want definitive interpretations. When you show them in a group, you get a whole narrative, a sense of a story unfolding over time.
AD: I also think that when these images are seen separately they look like a provocation – albeit to the viewer and the suggestion that we rethink what we are looking at – and when seen as a group of images, they appear to be more about witnessing. I was reminded of a kind of Handala-like figure, the one created by Naji Al Ali, the cartoon figure of a young Palestinian boy who becomes a witness to history.
TAG: I understand the reference to Handala but to the best of my knowledge – and I checked this with an art historian – the figure is always imagined from the back and it is very much about witnessing, whereas the figure in my images changes position: sometimes, it is facing the camera, sometimes shot from the side, sometimes passing through the image as if they are unintentional interruptions.
AD: I want to shift a little bit and talk about what is being represented in your B Series (2005-2006). I find them formally more abstract and I am drawn to the topographic element in them. They seem to be about barriers, about points beyond which one cannot travel. I see that as allegorical as opposed to actual. Could you talk a little bit about why you choose to work with these particular objects, which are quite obdurate and wall-like, and yet sculptural too.