Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Al Sawaber 3672, 2015–17, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 x 59".

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Al Sawaber 3672, 2015–17, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 x 59".

Tarek Al-Ghoussein

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Al Sawaber 3672, 2015–17, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 x 59".

Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s “K Files,” 2013, the result of an invitation to participate in Kuwait’s first national pavilion at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale, is a series of photographs of key sites of nation building, from the iconic Kuwait Towers to its famous stock market—some now abandoned and in disrepair. His recent exhibition “Al Sawaber,” curated by art historian Salwa Mikdadi, was an in-depth photographic portrait of just one such site, the eponymous deserted government-housing complex in the heart of Kuwait City.

Organized around a series of green corridors, the complex’s distinctive stepped apartment blocks were designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson in 1977. But the project was a failure. Only 524 of the 900 proposed units were completed; planned communal and commercial amenities were never built. The individual apartments were deemed too small, and their layouts lacked diwaniyas, traditional male-only social spaces, a necessity for Kuwaiti families. With many abandoning the city center for larger villas in the burgeoning suburbs, the units were eventually rented out to expatriates. On a visit in late 2013, Al-Ghoussein saw an eviction notice giving residents just three days to vacate the premises. While some stubbornly continued to stay put, holding out for fair compensation, many departed abruptly, leaving precious belongings behind.

Al-Ghoussein has returned to photograph the structures and spaces of Al Sawaber many times since. One might accuse him of peddling in ruin porn, but his multifaceted project pushes deeper by adopting a variety of approaches and formats. Small black-and-white ink-jet prints dated 2015–17 capture the crisp lines, sharp angles, and strong geometries of Erickson’s modernist design. In these images, signs of disrepair are subtle—there are rectangular black voids where windows should be, and a stagnant pool of water sits in the middle of a paved courtyard. For a group from 2017, Al-Ghoussein systematically photographed the entryways of each apartment block from the same position, emphasizing the serial repetition of Erickson’s design, its rational order tarnished by graffiti and decay.

In larger-scale color images, also dated 2015–17, Al-Ghoussein turns his attention to the interiors, focusing on wall decorations he found in various units. In one, a clumsily rendered but almost convincing scene of fall foliage fills the frame. However, two dangling white wires and a tiny hole in the wall in the top-right corner kill the reality effect, revealing the vista to be a wall painting. Such landscapes, ranging from a riverside idyll to one featuring a postapocalyptic pink sky (the latter ominously blackened by fire damage), reappear. These vernacular embellishments counter the monotonous identity of the units, making each one somewhat distinct, an expression of those dwelling within.Al-Ghoussein focuses in on telling details in smaller color pictures, these, too, dated 2015–17—a faux-Roman column tightly wedged into a corner, a photographic portrait of a grinning George H. W. Bush in an elevator lobby—supplementing these in situ images with those of objects left behind by residents. Salvaged on repeated visits to the complex, nine such artifacts—among them a rug featuring a visage of Ayatollah Khomeini and three silver canisters for Cuban cigars—are shot individually against a neutral background with a clinical precision that transforms them into procedural evidence, archaeological specimens, or products in a catalogue.

These and scores of other objects were arranged in a circle on the floor nearby, with two-dimensional ephemera—from religious posters and takeout menus to family snapshots and used boarding passes—neatly filed away in an album. Buried in these artifacts are material traces of many nationalities and languages, religions and sects. Together, they testify not just to the quotidian lives of their owners but to a thriving multicultural and cosmopolitan community. However, Al-Ghoussein’s inclusion of the physical objects themselves, like relics of past lives, seemed to question photography’s capacity to access the residue of history. As a Palestinian born in exile in Kuwait, unable to return to his parents’ native home, he may better understand the true weight of what must be left behind.

Murtaza Vali