Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 9th October 2015

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Autonomy of Self: Remembering injustices

Photographs can raise awareness about long-protracted conflicts and past issues that otherwise could fall into oblivion.

Family archive photograph

Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari shows how a family archive can serve as
both a personal and a collective source of memory.

London - In addition to being an art, photography is a means for documenting events and keeping memories alive. Photographs can raise awareness about long-protracted conflicts and past issues that otherwise could fall into oblivion.

Autonomy of Self: rejecting violence with the lens in former Ottoman territories is a small exhibition with a long name in which photos and short films are employed to reassert identity, make statements and express feelings about past and present conflicts and how they could be interlinked.

On display are photographs from the family album of Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari, a fourth-generation survivor of the Armenian Medz Yeghern, and images from the “Arab spring” by Egyptian photographer Nadia Mounier and Tunisian photographer Moufida Fedhila.

Exhibition curator Joy Stacey explores Palestinian identity through her video The Tourist. Artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige draw attention to Israel’s notorious Khiam detention camp in south Lebanon.

Liam Devlin, senior lecturer in photography at the University of Huddersfield, argued that “when the Ottoman Empire eventually collapsed at the end of the first world war, many of the nations that emerged in the interwar period never fully stabilised and this helped fuel conflicts across the region ever since.”

The exhibition explores how conflicts in the former Ottoman territories are remembered – or if they are remembered at all, from the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1914-15, to the Palestinian conflict, the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and the uprisings of the “Arab spring”.

Saraidari tries to compensate for the almost non-existent photographic documentation of the deaths of 800,000-1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I by turning to her family’s photo albums to challenge the Turkish state’s attempt to eradicate the Armenian population within its borders. She uses the personal tragedy of her family to draw attention to a shocking massacre that is only remembered through the efforts of the victims’ families.

In a strategy reminiscent of Turkey’s denial of the Armenian mass killings, Israel did its best to eradicate the memory of Khiam detention camp, which was run by its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, during its 1978-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon.

In the films, Khiam and Khiam second part, former detainees, seated on a chair, speak straight to the camera to compensate for the absence of camp images. Until south Lebanon was liberated in May 2000, it was impossible to go to Khiam camp. The former detainees narrate how they managed to survive and assert their identity by producing a needle, a pencil, a string of beads, a chess game.

The camp was turned into a museum but was destroyed during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In the second film, former detainees react to the destruction of the camp. “How can one preserve the traces, the memory?” they ask.

Stacey places a camera on a tripod in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and lets it run for 12 minutes, taking photos of tourists visiting the church where they encounter two forlorn figures, who have stepped out of the past, dressed in the Palestinian national costume.

“The Palestinian Authority promotes cultural tourism and heritage as a form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. Visitors have the potential to witness the occupation and leave with an understanding of Palestinian identity,” she said.

“My work questions the relationship between staged visual identities, used where there is a deficit in political representation and the role and responsibility of the audience to the resulting imagery.”

Egyptian women hoped the “Arab spring” would give them a chance to assert their identity and aspire for a better future. In her project Sawtak (Your Voice), Mounier expressed anger at the oppression of Egyptian women through a series of self-portraits. The portraits were reproduced to look like campaign posters that she posted across Cairo’s city centre. Most were defaced.

“The destruction of the posters became an eloquent metaphor for the destruction of the hopes and belief in a more open, democratic society that revolution sought to achieve,” Devlin said.

Fedhila invited Tunisians to pose with the “Super Tunisian” placard. “Isn’t civil society in its plurality the true heroic force in a country in the process of rebuilding?” she asked.

The photos and films expose harsh realities. It is not a thought-provoking exhibition, however, the visitor is challenged to remember injustices and to reflect on their consequences.

“We encounter each piece as an invitation to interpret through our own experiences, an invitation that encourages further questioning, discussions and debates,” Devlin contended.

The exhibition runs through October 31st at the P21 Gallery in London.