Kevin Mitchell, Warehouse (2009), from the series Warehouse
(Re) Regarding Borders
In the rare opportunity for one to reflect on a past curatorial project, I set out to explore and critique my own exhibition Regarding Borders, and with the hope to arrive at a new point of view. It is a popular belief that once an exhibition opens (and its attendant catalogue is published), it is a fait accompli, in the careful hands of its audiences. Within the UAE, it is easy to succumb to the seemingly lightening speed at which the region’s burgeoning commercial art market and curatorial ventures are unfolding, and to simultaneously forget or displace its subtleties. To borrow from Mark Pilkington’s artist statement in the exhibition Regarding Borders, 'something may be lost as something is found in this transformation'. Initiatives like Khamsa, a five year anniversary book celebrating Maraya Art Centre’s achievements, are making important, critical contributions to the discourse on contemporary art in the region today. By holding up a mirror, Khamsa serves to provide an understanding of how the topography of the field has changed in a short space of time and considers the role of the arts space within this function.
I arrived in Dubai in 2009, having left my post as executive director and curator at the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) to pursue my doctorate on contemporary art photography from the ‘Middle East’. While at HCP, I had the pleasure of facilitating several juried ‘calls for entries’ for exhibitions and fellowships. Upon arrival here, I wanted to learn about the regional photographic community. I also wanted to explore local practicing photographic artists’ ideas, concerns, traditions, and themes whilst generating an exhibition opportunity for them. The idea for the ‘call for entries’ exhibition Regarding Borders was such an occasion.
In my opinion and practice as a curator and writer, photography has its own unique landscape, community, and considerations. I would argue that many of the popular debates in contemporary art criticism in the last 20 years – particularly discussions about populations hitherto considered marginalized in pre-existing (Westernized) art historical record – have been slow to catch on in photographic circles. In the last five years, there has been a dedicated interest in providing a global platform for photographic practices happening within specific geopolitical regions, which goes in tandem with discussions on whether there exist regionally specific styles and languages in the field of photography. Some would contend that regionally themed photographic exhibitions are examples of how varied forms of diversity are commodified. Of interest to me is how value and meaning of photographic images within these exhibitions travel within and across borders, and I readily explore this within my own curatorial practice.
As both an exhibition and a concept Regarding Borders endeavored to build upon the dominant trends in photography and global art criticism of transgression, shifting identities and cultural dislocation, situating the discourse within the GCC. This dynamic region consisting of ever-evolving individual, geographic and cultural boundaries make it a prime location for experimentation and reflection. Artists residing in or nationals of GCC countries were invited to submit an image portfolio and statement, which, in concert, expressed their interpretation of the exhibition’s title.
With the support of Maraya Art Centre and head curator Giuseppe Moscatello, Regarding Borders took place in 2010. The panel of jurors consisted of Moscatello; artist and NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) professor Tarek Al-Ghoussein; arts curator and writer Laura Egerton, formerly of Abraaj/Art Dubai; Saadia Zahid, former director of Shelter; and myself. We selected 13 artists for the exhibition. Their nationalities were diverse, reflecting the peripatetic regional way of life. Most artists resided in the UAE.
While the artists’ locations may be a result of their proximity to Maraya’s venue, their local concentration is a possible indicator of the strength of this country’s regionally unparalleled photographic community. Local galleries supporting photography, institutions like Gulf Photo Plus, and university programs have helped to expand the discipline in recent years. In 2010, photography typically resided in universities’ design programs, as part of broader departments that considered photography as a commercial enterprise, with a few professors championing it as a critical artistic practice. Fast forward five years; new initiatives like NYUAD’s Akkasah Center for Photography and developments at Zayed University and American University in Sharjah are establishing coursework and departments on photography, thereby considering it an important tool for cultural investigation and creative expression in the region.
Revisiting Regarding Borders, one of my reflections on those who submitted to the exhibition is that most were working in diverse media, not strictly in photography. Unlike my origins, where there exist many photographic loyalists, in the GCC photography is simply one tool to explore an idea, concept, or emotion. Take for example works by Lana Abu Qulbain, Petra Matar, Kevin Mitchell, Sema Orouk, and Sharmeen Syed who have backgrounds in architecture. Their unique images included topographical typologies, cinematic investigations, and constructed landscapes that explored structure and form.
Prior to the selection process for Regarding Borders, I envisioned that the exhibition could serve a dual function: artists could creatively respond to exhibition title, while the content of their work would make temporal and spatial associations to this region and particular historical moment. In retrospect, I was largely considering the term ‘border’ to allude to something that defines a geopolitical boundary, which has social, psychological, cultural and ideological implications. The submissions revealed diverse visual signatures and conceptual approaches. There were many nuanced interpretations of the theme, such as Sami Al-Turki’s poetically powerful Washaeg (2010-11) series. A few bodies of work appeared devoid of documentary tethers, and many submissions had seemingly less obvious explorations of the term ‘border’, like Shereena Lootah’s and Hala Al-Ani’s work.
Returning to the question of whether there exist regionally specific styles and visual languages in photography, I am reminded of a conversation I had with photographers Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Stephen Shore. Al-Ghoussein discussed photographic literacy as paramount to any culturally rooted understanding of an image. Shore referenced an Emirati photography student who said, ‘we are creating the tradition’. Both ideas are applicable to Regarding Borders. The works’ meaning and value is built by the artists, selectors, curator, venue, and audiences, engaged in a perpetual process of creation as the works travel through time and place.
Raza, Sara, ed. (2015)
Khamsa. Sharjah: Maraya.
 Pilkington, Mark. Interactions. From Regarding Borders exhibition catalogue, p. 33.
 FotoFest’s From the Inside: Contemporary Arab Photography (2014) and the V&A’s Light from the Middle East: New Photography (2011) are two such regionally themed exhibitions that took place beyond its strict geopolitically defined boundaries. While such initiatives have taken place within the world of contemporary art for a while, they are relatively new to the sphere of art photography.
 The curator in conversation with Stephen Shore and Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Abu Dhabi, November 2009.