• Nadia Benchallal ©

Nazar - Arab eyes

The main exhibition of Nazar takes place in the Fries Museum and shows work by 25 contemporary photographers coming from 12 Arab countries.

In an extremely varied way they provide an image of the culture and daily life in their world. They show marriages in Morocco and the new elite of Lebanon, photograph the rooftops of Cairo and the pilgrimage to Mecca. They share their vision on the position of women and the role of religion, on modernisation and migration.

Working in a context full of politics and culturally defined rules, Arab photographers speak of themselves and their culture in photographs as poetic as they are confrontational. The result is a photographic self-portrait, made of a world that we think we know, and a unique survey of the quality and diversity of contemporary Arab photography.

Until the end of the last century, photography was of little importance in the Arab world. The medium had next to no status, and it was not acknowledged as an autonomous art form. Only in the 1990s did this begin to change. There arose - at least in Lebanon and Egypt - a generation of artistic and documentary photographers, and under the influence of Western press agencies photojournalism began to develop itself.

Today photography plays a significant role in almost all the lands of the Arab world. Even in a dictatorship such as Iraq artistic photography flourished over the last decade. That Islam stands in the way of the development of photography is a widespread misunderstanding. Arab photographers do indeed still encounter restrictions that are placed upon them by governing authorities.

Nevertheless, despite this there is sufficient room for social critique in Arab photography. This extends from the traditional man/woman relationship within Islam to the rigid Arab system of government and the one-dimensional image that the West has of their society. But where their Western colleagues avail themselves of a hard, documentary approach, Arab photographers wrap their critique in a more personal, poetic photography.

Thus one of the women photographers, Ymane Fakhir, visualises Moroccan marriages as a showcase for hypocrisy. The Palestinian Tarek Al-Ghoussein magnifies the stereotype of the stone-throwing Palestinian into a Western logo. Opposite them stand Western-affiliated photographers such as the Reuters correspondent Ahmed Jadallah. To an increasing degree they employ the hard news photography approach and express themselves in a language that the West understands immediately.

Other photographers concentrate on giving us a view of Arab culture from the inside. Nadia Benchallal and Bruno Boudjelal illuminate the experience of living between two worlds, as a result of emigration. Omar D. honours the Algerian in powerful portraits. In his own way Youssef Nabil continues the Egyptian glamour tradition that was developed by Van Leo. All of this work expresses a deep engagement with their own culture. Whether it involves life on the roofs of Cairo or the rituals of a religious minority, an intimate picture of everyday life in the Arab world reveals itself here, one which for the West all too often remains hidden behind the headlines.