Madeline's doctoral research at University of the Arts London Chelsea College of Arts & Design (anticipated completion in 2021) is a qualitative study that maps the development of Middle Eastern art photography discourse through specific curatorial practices, centring this imagined and contested geopolitical region, from 2010–14. Widely acknowledged as one of the fastest-growing photography markets in the world in the early twenty-first century, the Middle Eastern photography art market recently plateaued. Much emphasis has been placed on commercial activities as the key drivers of knowledge production and dissemination of contemporary art photography from the Middle East. Related discourse on the social histories of curatorial endeavours remains nascent.
This research aims to contribute to the developing critical scholarship and curatorial expertise in the field of contemporary Middle Eastern photography by questioning how meaning and value are produced within it. Furthermore, it aims to generate qualitative information towards a broader understanding of the conditions, mechanisms and implications by which photographic art discourses ‘emerge’ from locations previously deemed peripheral to Western-centric art-historical thought.
Through the lens of four curatorial case studies centring on several curators and three artists/photographers, this research explores how individual, religious, gendered, national and cultural forms of diversity are negotiated, circulated, contested and commodified. Each study contextualises the project in situ, explores curatorial negotiations and developments, interprets the artists/photographers’ work, investigates how their identities can be marketed and employed as vehicles for cultural tourism, diplomacy and understanding, and observes their agency in interrogating entrenched narratives about the Middle East and Middle Eastern photography and its associated terms. Examining Mathaf’s inaugural exhibition and FotoFest’s Arab biennial, the performance of Arab photography within different systems of patronage is explored; this investigation centres Jerusalem-born Steve Sabella, whose work interrogates the colonisation of Palestinian and Arab identity through photography. Articulations of belonging, heritage and nation are examined in the educational initiative and exhibition Emirati Expressions, centring Kuwaiti-born, UAE-based Tarek Al-Ghoussein of Palestinian descent. How a new collection of Middle Eastern photography is constituted within the V&A and British Museum is explored, as well as its attendant exhibition, Light from the Middle East. Within it, the work of Jananne Al-Ani offers an opportunity to conceptually question historical and contemporary framings of the Middle East through photography. Terminology and themes are analysed, and trajectories for future curation are considered.