PRINT January 2010


Akram Zaatari, Nature Morte, 2007, stills from a color video, 11 minutes.

AKRAM ZAATARI’S ELEVEN-MINUTE VIDEO Nature Morte, 2007, opens with two men seated in a drab, white-walled room. One of the men—older, with a weathered face and sad, sunken eyes—fills the foreground on the right-hand side of the screen. The other—healthier, more alert—appears, slightly out of focus, in the background to the left. The dramatic depth of field exaggerates the distance between them and accentuates the incongruity of their tasks: Both men are working silently with their hands, but the older one is wrapping explosives in cardboard and tape, while the younger, with needle and thread, is delicately mending a jacket.

The camera lingers on this scene. At first the room is dimly lit, then flooded with fluorescent light, then, with a click, plunged into darkness—a power failure—and then, with a hiss, illuminated once again by the glow of a gas lamp. Daylight seeps in. The morning call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. The scene breaks, and the pace quickens. We see shot and countershot of the older man’s face, the younger man’s face, the two men facing each other in profile. Another jump cut and we are looking at a landscape: lush, green trees and a low stone wall snaking beside a narrow footpath. We see the older man trudging along that path—with a rifle and a rucksack, his jacket repaired, his lunch in a plastic bag—until he disappears.

Viewers familiar with the political history of Lebanon are likely to grasp the significance of the video’s setting, identified in the closing credits as the village of Hubbariyeh. Hubbariyeh is located a stone’s throw from Shebaa Farms, a slice of mountainous terrain at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Ownership of the territory has been disputed between Lebanon and Syria for nearly a century, and Israel has occupied the area since 1967. Hezbollah, for its part, uses Shebaa Farms as a pretext for attacking Israeli soldiers and makes no secret of its ambition to retake the territory, a move that, if attempted, would almost certainly provoke a war. The ominous image at the end of Zaatari’s video, of the older man lumbering toward Shebaa Farms with a makeshift bomb on his back, makes that war feel all the more imminent.

Nature Morte was conceived for the Centre Pompidou’s 2008 exhibition “Les Inquiets” (The Anxious), which examined representations of war through the work of five contemporary artists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It marked a pivotal moment in Zaatari’s oeuvre, which comprises videos, photographs, multimedia installations, authored and coedited publications, an ambitious urban intervention in the Lebanese port city of Saida (where the artist was born), and two carefully curated film programs. Over the past decade, Zaatari has established himself in Beirut as one of the most respected artists of Lebanon’s so-called postwar generation. Like other members of that generation, he employs documentary practices while subverting them to expose the fallibility of both history and memory. Unlike his peers in Beirut, however, Zaatari doesn’t focus exclusively on Lebanon’s protracted civil war, emphasizing instead stories, conditions, and phenomena that have been overlooked or buried beneath that all-consuming narrative. He also doesn’t invent characters (such as the imagined photographer at the center of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Wonder Beirut project, 1997–2006, or the fictional personalities who populate Walid Raad’s work with the Atlas Group), but rather uses actual people and events.

Zaatari’s creative process involves conducting extensive interviews with his subjects and gathering from them vast collections of letters, diaries, civic documents, snapshots, press clippings, home movies, cassette tapes, mementos, and more. In the videos that arise from this material, his subjects are almost always present, speaking on-screen in the manner of eyewitnesses offering testimony, though not always spontaneously: Sometimes they recite stories they’ve previously told the artist, and sometimes, when the subject is unavailable (because he’s in prison, for example), Zaatari enlists an artist or friend to perform the part.

Much of his work draws on the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, a Beirut-based nonprofit he founded in 1997 with the photographers Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad. The foundation’s mandate is to collect and preserve examples of the region’s photographic heritage (artistic, vernacular, and commercial), but it doubles as a research center for its members, many of whom are, like Zaatari, artists with an interest in the archival.

Zaatari’s work has often been shown internationally, in geographically themed shows, but recently it has received more general attention—a development that coincides with the stylistic break of Nature Morte. Leading up to this moment, Zaatari’s videos had been intensely talkative, hinging on anecdotes, testimonies, dirty jokes, and the potent imagery of idiomatic Arabic. Crazy of You, 1997, for example, features interviews with young men from the industrial suburbs of Beirut, who boast about acts of sexual conquest and domination; How I Love You, 2001, details the experiences of young gay men in Lebanon, who candidly describe how they conduct (and code) their lives; In This House, 2005, which documents the artist’s attempt to unearth a letter buried by militiamen in a garden in south Lebanon, features a cacophony of conversations with police officers, intelligence agents, and nosy neighbors.

Akram Zaatari, How I Love You, 2001, still from a color video, 29 minutes.

Nature Morte, by contrast, is devoid of dialogue. The only sounds to be heard are ambient and apparently diegetic—the hiss of the gas lamp, the flare of a lighter, the crackling of radio static. The video is also visually spare, whereas Zaatari’s previous works accumulated dense layers of papers, objects, and images on-screen—this layering being an aesthetic strategy he shares with other Lebanese artists, such as Raad and Rabih Mroué. And it is the closest the artist has ever come to narrative cinema: His earlier works, even if they touch on a story or flesh out an anecdote, use fragmentation, essayistic or documentary tropes, and disjointed associations between still images and intertitles to undercut the narrative flow, whereas Nature Morte uses a smooth and expressly cinematic visual language to actually tell a story, even if an elusive and ambiguous one.

This finesse notwithstanding, Zaatari got his start in the freewheeling and somewhat rough-and-tumble world of Lebanese television in the mid-1990s. Having studied architecture at the American University of Beirut and media at the New School in New York, Zaatari was hired in 1995 as the executive producer of a morning television program for Future TV. Lebanon’s television industry had just been reorganized to curb the broadcasting excesses of the previous era; every party and militia across the political spectrum had set up its own station during the civil war. When the conflict ended, the government reduced the more than fifty channels to around ten. Future TV was one of the newer, more professional stations that aggressively recruited young creative types and gave them unfettered access to equipment, along with relative freedom to produce highly experimental documentaries—a liberty that the influential documentarian Mohamed Soueid was probably the first to embrace. Taking advantage of this atmosphere, many contemporary Lebanese artists got their start in TV. Zaatari’s earliest videos were originally screened as filler between the morning show’s segments.

Because Zaatari and other artists in Lebanon come from backgrounds outside fine art—not only from television and other professional fields but also from academic programs in visual culture and media studies—their connection to the country’s art history is tenuous at best, and they have little interest in the local artists who preceded them throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether landscape painters, social realists, Abstract Expressionists, or avant-garde performers. Indeed, it has been argued that one of the main problems afflicting Beirut’s (often factionalized) contemporary art scene is that the current generation cannot enact any kind of Oedipal struggle, because no “father” in the sphere of contemporary art exists as such. (Soueid comes closest to playing the part, but he is not much older than Zaatari and his peers and, moreover, has made a point of operating outside the art world and within the parameters of television and feature film.) In interviews, Zaatari has said he feels a closer kinship to his predecessors elsewhere, such as Harun Farocki and Jean-Luc Godard.

Yet kinship is something Zaatari continues to seek in his own country and within a distinctly local context. His videos conjure a kind of imagined community of men who have, like him, made images, told stories, and assembled vast collections of seemingly ephemeral materials. Significantly, these men are seldom, if ever, artists. More often they are camera technicians, photojournalists, studio portraitists, or prisoners taking photographs or recording videos to send to their families and friends. Zaatari doesn’t turn them into artists, but he does turn their lives and experiences into art. Take, for example, Hashem El Madani, who was born in 1928 and spent more than five decades working as a commercial photographer in Saida. Hundreds of thousands of his negatives are in the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, and he is the subject of a long-term project Zaatari initiated a decade ago, which has yielded numerous works in a range of formats. Through this engagement with El Madani’s archive, Zaatari teases out histories of the ways in which photography has been used—functions ranging from the crudely political (a parliamentary candidate shoring up support by commissioning voter-identification photos) to the intensely personal (young men and women using the space of El Madani’s studio to enact fantasies or embody gender-bending identities).

With such projects, Zaatari traces an alternative lineage for contemporary art, one in which the most meaningful links do not go between generations of artists but rather cut across the various disciplines, professions, and economies that govern the making of images—with a particular eye toward times of political unrest and places marked by conflict. Here it’s worth noting that Zaatari’s characters, the members of his imagined community, are often both imagemakers and militants. His oeuvre is full of such subtle but unmistakable reminders that artists, writers, and filmmakers are never entirely outside the conflicts they cover, reflect on, or critique. The fluidity of these roles—producer of images versus fighter; observer of wars versus partisan—is a crucial dynamic in Zaatari’s work.

Akram Zaatari, Objects of Study/Studio Shehrazade/Reception Space, 2007, composite color photograph, 50 x 98 1⁄2".

This was particularly evident in the artist’s recent survey, on view at the Kunstverein München in the spring of 2009 and, in expanded form, in Beirut at Galerie Sfeir-Semler and the Beirut Art Center the following summer and fall. The exhibition, which Zaatari curated himself, was divided into five “chapters,” each organized around a video and supported by photographs, texts, and other printed matter. Each, further, illuminated the story of one of the men Zaatari has known, interviewed, and befriended over the course of many years. One chapter, clustered around the video This Day, 2003, dwelled on the elderly historian Jibrail Jabbur, who discusses the research on nomadic Bedouin tribes in Syria that he conducted in the 1950s with the Armenian photographer Manoug. By 2003, the tribes’ traditional way of life had disappeared, while Manoug’s images remain.

Two chapters shared not only a focus on a hidden letter but an interest in complicating perceptions of the militant persona. The first focused on photojournalist Ali Hashisho: In the aforementioned video In This House, Hashisho tells Zaatari (and us) about his days as a leftist militant, occupying an abandoned house with his comrades and burying a note for the owners, should they ever return. Zaatari conveys Hashisho’s story through a combination of interview footage and an assemblage of Hashisho’s belongings—pages from his diary, his ID cards and press credentials, and souvenirs he collected from “the front,” including bits of rock, acorns, and dried leaves. Then the artist heads to the house with a camera, a gardener, and a shovel. Against expectations, he unearths the letter, which has been preserved in a mortar casing for fifteen years. It proves disarmingly sentimental, full of clumsy quips and Khalil Gibran quotes. The second of these chapters centered on the video Letter to Samir, 2008, which concerns Nabih Awada, also a former leftist militant, who was imprisoned in Israel for ten years. During that time, Awada wrote letters prolifically, often in a minuscule script on thin sheets of paper he then meticulously folded and wrapped in cellophane. In Letter to Samir, Zaatari meets with Awada ten years after his release and asks him to write a letter to Samir Kuntar, a high-profile militant. As Awada scribbles, we have time to peruse a wall text informing us that it was common practice among prisoners to conceal their correspondence beneath their tongues and to pass it on to visitors, particularly fellow party members, by kissing them on the mouth.

The remaining two chapters served as bookends for the exhibition. These focused on Mohammad Abu Hammane, the older man in Nature Morte and also the subject of Zaatari’s All Is Well on the Border, 1997. In All Is Well, we learn that Abu Hammane, too, is a leftist fighter who has been displaced by the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and has taken up temporary employment in Beirut as a camera technician. Coming to Nature Morte with this knowledge in mind, and having wended one’s way through the other tales Zaatari told in this exhibition, one realized that Zaatari’s recent film is as much a convergence as a departure. In many ways, it knits together the varied concerns—constructions of masculinity and the bonds men share, political conflicts and geographic territories that resist representation, the inner lives of former militants and fighters associated with leftist movements that have become irrelevant or obsolete—that Zaatari has been exploring throughout his career. Early in All Is Well, Abu Hammane teaches Zaatari how to manipulate images by adjusting the aperture and the zoom on his lens—teaches him, that is, how the camera can distort reality. Yet as his grim exit in Nature Morte suggests, however much the camera distorts reality, it does not escape it. Neither does Zaatari; rather, he parses its dizzying mediations and its political, affective, and aesthetic contradictions.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.