The Biennial of Photography in the Contemporary Arab World | A second edition raising questions

What are we? Where are we going? What will our society become? These are the questions addressed by the photographs featured in the second edition of the Biennial of Photography in the Contemporary Arab World — questions that resonate with the recent history of several Middle East countries — and especially those of Maghreb.

This year’s edition of the biennial is not only outstanding, but also very diverse: the event held at Paris’ Arab World Institute (and several other satellite locations), organized in collaboration with the Maison européenne de la photographie, (MEP) features both emerging and more established artists — 50 in total — in what is “an exploration of the Contemporary Arab World through the eyes of both Arab and international photographers”, in the words of curator Gabriel Bauret.

On through November 12, the second edition of the Biennial features a focus on Algeria and Tunisia — coordinated by curator Olfa Feki — countries that have been somewhat underrepresented in the international art scene in recent years.  

Although a debate over the distinction between photojournalism and artistic photography still exists, this biennial provides solid answers: if photojournalism exists to accompany the written word, artistic photography speaks louder than words.

A second edition raising questions

Following the recent years marked by the Arab Spring, the biennial explores questions that revolve less around violence and more around the notion of identity, the themes of existentialism or nostalgia as well as the fight against oblivion, explored in the works of Moath Alofi, capturing the abandoned mosques of Medina or in the photographs of Roger Grasas, documenting the transformation of a marginal territory: the desert. Works by photographers from North Africa often evoke the idea of transformation and through their photographs we learn that change does not necessarily mean destruction and that it often involves a certain degree of nostalgia.


Roger Grasas Falaj al Harth Série Min Turab Sultanat d'Oman 2013 / The Last Tashahhud V 2014 © Moath Al-Ofi 


Scarlett Coten, Yahia Série Mectoub -Tunis -Tunisie 2014 / Rania Matar Christina 10 Série Becoming


The nature of the Arab World is explored through an immensely diverse panorama of works: Robin Hammond’s portraits of LGBT youth explore the pressing questions of human rights and social acceptance; Scarlett Coten investigates the notion of male identity within the Arab World, whilst Rania Matar focuses on the same notion, but through the eyes of young girls and female teenagers. The question of “identity” — both personal and collective — is also central to the work of Mouna Karray, who is presenting photographs from her series Noir.


Jaber Al Azmeh, Survival 4, Série Border Lines 2016


Zied ben Romdhane Chattessamem Série West of life 2013-2016


The MEP features three photographers, including Hicham Benohoud, who is presenting the series The Hole and Acrobatics. For the first, the artist asked several families to create actual holes in the wall of their houses — with the help of a team of construction workers — only to have their picture taken within the newly-created cavities. For Acrobatics, a series of acrobats recreate their iconic poses in the intimate setting of their home, surrounded by their families.


Hicham Benohoud Série Acrobatics - Courtesy de l'artiste et Loft Art Gallery


If in the Maghreb the ghost of violence is now relegated to the past, the near Middle East can’t say the same. Michel Slomka presents works documenting the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq, perpetrated by ISIL. Slomka’s photos — on show in the townhall of Paris’ 4th arrondissement, which will soon open a space dedicated to the memory of artist Leila Alaoui, who also died at the hands of Islamic terrorism — explore the trauma this population has lived in recent years, as well as the ways in which we can speak about what no longer exists, what is no longer tangible.


Mairie du 4e — Michel_Slomka Des petites filles forment une ronde a l'exterieur du camp de refugies de Sharya au Kurdistan irakien Irak 2016


Giving voice to a younger generation

At the gallery of the Cité Internationale des Arts, curator Bruno Boudjelal presents the show “IKBAL / ARRIVEES”, bringing together the work of 20 Algerian photographers under 30 and offering a poignant portrait of this emerging scene.

Among the most striking works featured in “IKBAL / ARRIVEES” is Fethi Sahraoui’s series Stadiumphilia, shot on iPhone. Winner of the 2017 edition of the award “Friends of the Arab World Institute for Arab contemporary creation,” Sahraoui captures scenes of everyday life in Algeria. In Stadiumphilia, the football pitch is the backdrop for a discussion on the ways in which young people “can escape the cruelty and the social pressure they endure.”


Fethi Sahraoui, Stadiumphilia


The focus on a younger generation of artists allows visitors to discover works that explore everyday life in Algeria, from sheep fights — captured by the camera of Youcef Krache — to the walls of Algiers, a means of expression for the city’s youth, with Mehdi Boubekeur’s series Tag ala tags. For his part, Nassim Rouchiche gives a voice to Sub-Saharan African immigrants, who have been made “invisible” by neglect.


Youcef Krache 20 cents


Mehdi Boubekeur Série Tags ala tags / Nassim Rouchiche Série Ca va waka


Atef Berredjem’s photographs account for a singular experience: the artist spent 32 days in a train travelling back and forth between his hometown Annaba and the capital city Algiers. Berredjem’s project serves as both a critique of the shortages of Maghreb’s transport system, but also as a fulfillment of the a desire for escapism that animates the youth of North Africa.


Atef Berredjem Série To Here from Here


Amidst all this chaos, Hakim Rezaoui’s series A Way of Life provides moments of greater intimacy by playing with lights and forms.


Hakim Rezaoui Série A way of life


This year’s edition of the biennial, certainly more mature than the first, does not focus so much on “the urgency of current events, but explores different viewpoints, giving a portrait of the Arab World that leaves room for reflection.” Whether their tone is ironic or critical, these photographs work towards “breaking the stereotypes associated with the Arab World.”

Over at Gallery Binôme, “The Third Image”, a show of photographs by Sara Naim and Mustapha Azeroual — curated by Laura Scemama in collaboration with Paris’ Observatory and Solar Screen — serves as an exploration of the medium of photography itself by exploring the theme of light and its sources, including the sun, our primary source of light.


Sara Naim & Mustapha Azeroual, Dispositif optique et diffraction de lumière, 2017, video HD, boucle de 0’50’’ plexiglass



Biennale des photographes du monde arabe contemporain