Critics’ Picks

Fazal Sheikh, Alima Hassan Abdullai and her brother Mahmoud, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1993, from the series “A Camel for the Son,” 1992–94, gelatin silver print, 18 7/10 x 14 7/10."


Fazal Sheikh

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
February 24–May 20, 2018

For nearly thirty years, photographer Fazal Sheikh has traveled a world linked by the flows of the Indian Ocean, documenting displaced people. While some of these places—Kenya and Pakistan—connect to Sheikh’s own family history, his sitters are those fleeing crises in neighboring states. This exhibition, titled “Common Ground,” draws many of such projects together to create a dark, if vital, atlas of the shifting borderlands that characterize the present.

Many critics, including Okwui Enwezor and Teju Cole, have cautioned that portraits of vulnerable populations or of postcolonies in peril amount to a kind of disaster tourism, confirming stereotypes about broad swaths of the world. Sheikh confounds such concerns, presenting his subjects unembellished and with lucid precision. From Ethiopian war widows to an Afghan refugee in full burqa, those portrayed gaze coolly into the lens, as if to take measure of the viewer. Other series offer quiet moments of wrenching intimacy, as in the 1997 photograph Abdul Aziz holding a photograph of his brother, Mula Abdul Hakim, Afghan refugee village, Khairabad, North Pakistan, which captures Aziz’s hands and a wallet-size portrait of his Mujahideen brother, killed by communist forces. “Ether,” 2008–2012, shows the final moments of the dead and dying, who are wreathed in flowers on the banks of the Ganges.

“A Camel for the Son” was shot at a Somali refugee camp from 1992 to 1994, documenting women and children at Dadaab, Kenya, some of whom had mobilized to combat sexual violence there, in collaboration with the United Nations. Sheikh returned six years later to find, among more than two hundred and thirty thousand residents, many from that earlier series, still stateless. In this and other ways, “Common Ground” is both a potent historical record and a harbinger of things to come.