Exhibitions, Report

Imperfect Chronology: Charting Arab history through photography and film

Image © Yto Barrada, courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery

At the end of this month, the Whitechapel Gallery will reveal the third part of Imperfect Chronology, a 15-month exhibition of Arab art from the Barjeel Art Foundation. The penultimate episode, titled Mapping the Contemporary I, will display a collection of striking photographs and artistic and documentary videos made between 1990 - 2000.

A 15-month long exhibition that began in September last year, Imperfect Chronology traces a chronological lineage through the development of art from the Arab region, starting from the beginning of the 20th century.

Given the depth and size of the exhibition, it is the first time some of the pieces have been shown in the UK.

Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and curator of the exhibition, explains the challenge in dividing the works into parts, where a distinction does not necessarily exist.

“It is impossible to synchronise specific events in art history when the historical materials of a place or site are limited,” says Kholeif. “The exhibition acknowledges that is is a chronology but also that it is a propositional one, one that could be read in many different ways.”

In this third instalment, the exhibition will display Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada’s poignant image Rue de la Liberté (2000), from the The Strait Project series, a visual documentary seeking to address the social tension and plight of Moroccan immigrants trying to get across the Strait of Gibraltar and into Europe.

Two suited men are face away from the camera, perhaps suggesting a plurality in their emotion.

“It is is a fond embrace; perhaps a farewell,” says Kholeif.

Another work featured is Tongue (1994) by Emirati photographer, Mohammed Kazem, based in Dubai. The image is self-modelled, with Kazem using his tongue to explore the keyhole of a door. Again, it is an image that belongs to a broader series- Kazem also pokes around inside a kettle, a battered hose pipe and the loop of a pair of scissors.

The exhibition is simultaneously a reflection on the historical memory of the Arab world and the friction that exists within it.

“The third chapter explores ideas of mapping – mapping history, mapping violence,” explains Kholief. “It considers how artists have negotiated the politics of representation through film, video and photography since the 1990s.”

Lebanese duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s photography series Faces (2009) were also chosen. The texturally distressed images depict torn posters slowly disintegrating over time, of political and religious martyrs, plastered on the streets of their home town.

Aside from their mediums and shared cultural background, the collection is a dynamic contrast between the conceptual and the observatory, bound together by personal interpretations of the many stories from the Arab regions. 

Imperfect Chronology: Mapping the Contemporary I is on at the Whitechapel Gallery, 26 April – 14 August, 2016, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX. Learn more here

Keep up-to-date with the leading voice in contemporary photography