Madeline's doctoral research at the University of the Arts London Chelsea College of Arts & Design (passed in December 2021) is a qualitative study that maps the development of Middle Eastern art photography discourse from 2010–14 through specific curatorial practices that centre this imagined and contested geopolitical region. 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 PhD thesis takes the position that the canon of photographic art history is a mythical construct that operates with opacity. A site for inclusion/exclusion, the canon operates with sociocultural and sociopolitical agendas and is reliant on the maintenance of historical standards. It has been located in the West and has largely been constituted by Western agents who consecrated the value of particular artists and photographers working in photography through prestige-generating channels (exhibitions, publications, collections, and so on). Identity labels such as Middle Eastern, Arab and Emirati are spatially constructed and can be considered both geographical and strategic; the exclusion of such identities in the canon can likewise be considered strategic.
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 several curators and three artists/photographers, this research questions how to responsibly curate identity: how individual, religious, gendered, national and cultural forms of diversity are negotiated, circulated, contested and commodified in curatorial practice. 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.