Critics’ Picks

View of “Akram Zaatari: Against Photography. An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation, 2017.”

View of “Akram Zaatari: Against Photography. An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation, 2017.”


Akram Zaatari

Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)
Plaça dels Angels, 1
April 7–September 25, 2017

Akram Zaatari’s latest museum show consists of his own work and, just as crucially, work from the Arab Image Foundation—an institutional archive of photography from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. Zaatari often uses photographs and paraphernalia from the collection as material. For instance, in the descriptively titled A Photographer’s Shadow, 2017, he has re photographed a picture from the collection of a cameraman’s body blocking light, spotlighting the person framing the shot. Throughout the show, one notices the artist identifying patterns—absurd studio props or cars, for example—at times with a wall full of the repeated motif in a grid of images. The cumulative amount of work displayed is staggering, and from it, one glimpses the weight of viewing the AIF’s repository as an artist scanning for significance.

In the two-channel video On Photography, People, and Modern Times, 2010, we see photographs being carefully archived on one screen, while on the other, individuals with a connection to these images reminisce about them. Both sides are offered cleanly and formally, but traces of nostalgia leak through the right channel. Meanwhile, for the installation Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2010, Zaatari photographed objects he found relevant from Hashem El Madani’s studio and placed those items in cabinets to be selected and shown to visitors during the course of the exhibition.

Zaatari has long advocated that items such as album mounts and notes on the backs of photographs be made equal in importance to the image itself and included in the AIF archive. He has likened his work to archaeological excavation. His careful search for emotion and meaning within each image is far less clinical than that, though. He is more of a storyteller.