Akram Zaatari @ New Art Exchange

Have we forgotten?

Don’t we remember how it used to be, you and I?

When we laughed, louder and louder

Our innocent heartbeat,

Our memories, our moments together

Was it all an illusion?

On the ground-floor gallery of the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, a four-channel film is projected in the round like a psychedelic declaration of love, heartache and masculinity in both English and Arabic. The film, Dance to the End of Love, is part of The Script, an exhibition of Akram Zaatari’s work that analyses how shared behaviors in front of the camera become trends.

Inspired by YouTube, Dance to the End of Love, 2011, consists of films that have been directly lifted from when the platform first started to be used in the Arab world, encompassing clips uploaded by men from Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen. Across four screens men stare at the camera, flexing their muscles, dancing, fighting and performing stunts as if trying to show their superpowers. The fact that these videos have been uploaded to a public domain suggest an underlying acceptance by the makers of the films that anyone can view them and use the material as they see fit. During a conversation between the artist and Anthony Downey – an academic, editor and writer – Zaatari explained: “I’m using this material to comment on the society that produces them…I don’t want issues of copyright to deprive me of that…I’m not using, I’m studying.’ In this way, Zaatari has inserted subtitles in both Arabic and English that give a voice to the men, projecting their messages of sadness and heartbreak. His characters seem desperate, both to attract the attention of the lovers who have rejected them, and also to gain popularity and recognition for their plight by posting these films online. There is an additional layer of desperation in the act of projecting themselves as individuals who have been irrationally scorned.

Akram Zaatari, Dance To The End of Love, 2011. Installation view, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon. © Akram Zaatari

It is currently estimated that over 400 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. At a time where the popularity of the still image is being gradually replaced by a moving one, it should not appear surprising therefore, that Zaatari’s second film installation at New Art Exchange was also inspired by YouTube. A brand new commission for the exhibition, The Script, 2018, comments on how ‘shared scripts’ can emerge through the re-enactment of certain narratives online. Across two almost identical scenes, Zaatari’s film shows the interaction between a father and his two sons. The first scene is a domestic one, where the father and his children are seen inside their family home. The adult male is engaged in the act of prayer, performing his duty of salah, the five daily prayers. Meanwhile, his two young sons play in the background, one rides a scooter while the other dares to even climb onto his father’s back mid-prayer. In the second scene, the family is transported to a theatre in Saida, Lebanon, all is completely dark, however the familial set up is the same. The premise of the theatre stage moves the actions from an act of prayer to an act of performance. Yet the set-up is virtually unchanged, the prayer mat is present, as are the toys the children were playing with. As in the home setting, the father prays while his children play. The film was inspired by a sub-genre of videos on YouTube that show fathers and sons praying. During the talk with Downey, Zaatari commented on his interest in understanding the relationship between people before they know religion. With this film, the children look as though they are under five-years-old, and probably do not understand the meaning behind what their father is doing. In fact, the father in Zaatari’s film even adds an extra set of movements to his prayer for the benefit of his sons, as he realizes that they are enjoying the actions that their human climbing frame is making. It is also interesting to note that the fathers in these films are probably consciously trying to present an idealised father and son image, in a sense; the films are also a performance. Within Zaatari’s film the camera is a witness; it does not move at all, it is completely static. The angles do not change; the film is an observation, rather than a comment that is presenting any kind of contrived image.

Akram Zaatari, The Script, 2018. Film still. © Akram Zaatari

In addition to the two film installations, Zaatari has presented a number of previously unpublished photographs from his Objects of Study series. The images come from an ongoing exploration of Studio Shehrazade in Saida, Lebanon, Zaatari’s hometown, which was run by Hashem El Madani. The images – that have been transferred directly onto the bare gallery walls through an image transfer process – were taken between the 1950s and 1970s. Like the films, Zaatari’s interest in photography looks at the performed identities of individuals in front of the camera. Among the photographs figures pose with cardboard cutouts, smiling, aware that they are being photographed, creating a series of images where the subjects adopt similar positions and gestures.

Zaatari’s display at New Art Exchange comments on the way Arab societies present themselves when interacting with a camera. From 1950s studio portraits – where the subjects interact with a photographer – to 21st century YouTube videos – where individuals film themselves, in order to project a certain image – the exhibition considers how individuals consciously (or unconsciously) act in front of a camera, causing the viewer in turn to reflect on their own relationship to photography.

Akram Zaatari: The Script is on display at New Art Exchange, 39-31 Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham, NG7 6BE until 9 September 2018

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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