ONCE EVERY TWO YEARS, Houston becomes the center of the photographic world. The FotoFest Biennial is one of the most important festivals of its kind on earth, drawing an international array of artists, curators, gallerists, and collectors. Normally, the organization chooses an organizing theme for the exhibition— past themes have included topics like technology, water, and violence, as well as geographical regions like Russia and Latin America—and this year is no exception. The title of this year’s biennial—the 15th since the organization’s founding in 1983—is View From Inside: Contemporary Arab Video, Photography, and Mixed Media Art.
For many Americans, the Arab world is a mystery, often defined by stereotypes and news images of violence and extremism. (Houstonians, because of the city’s long connection with oil and gas-producing Arabic countries, might have a more nuanced view, just as many Saudis are apparently fans of much-maligned H-Town.) But, as FotoFest co-founder and artistic director Wendy Watriss explains, “Even in magazines like The New Yorker, you rarely see a straight human interest story that goes beyond the headlines.” The work in View From Inside, says Watriss, “doesn’t avoid those headlines and those situations, but at the same time the artists are dealing with issues of their own culture and their own worlds.”
It’s a combination that produces work Watriss describes as “very skeptical, sometimes very funny, and sometimes outright critical of what is happening in their countries and to their lives.” The lead curator of the biennial is Karin Adrian von Roques, an art historian who studied Islamic art and has spent the past 20 years working with contemporary Arabic art. Together with Watriss, she selected approximately 48 artists hailing from 13 Arab countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen.
One of the standouts is Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, whose Desert of Pharan is a series of vivid color photographs of the frantic development of Mecca as the city attempts to accommodate the annual throngs of pilgrims. An estimated 95 percent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been destroyed in the past 20 years to make room for things like hotels and public bathrooms. Mater’s 2011 image “Golden Hour” shows the Masjid al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque) in the distance, ringed by scores of construction cranes, their booms raised as if in salute.
A little over a third of the 48 FotoFest artists are women. Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s “Hijab Series: Mother-Daughter and Doll” shows a mother, her young daughter, and the daughter’s doll wearing various degrees of veiling. The first image in the series shows the mother in a casual headscarf and the daughter’s hair uncovered. The final image shows them gloved, swathed in black, their faces completely obscured behind burqas, their eyes peeking through a slit. We see them transformed from individuals into anonymous sculptural forms. The images reflect a range of interpretations of proper Islamic dress for women, while the doll adds a note of absurdity. The biennial spans multiple venues and includes a host of partner exhibitions, talks, and events like a conference on Arab art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a series of talks on “Arabophobia” at Rice University.