I Exist (In Some Way) at The Bluecoat

Tanya Habjouqa’s ‘Fragile Monsters’

by Sinead Nunes, Editor

The Bluecoat’s current exhibition I Exist (In Some Way) is a remarkable collection of images taken by Middle-Eastern and Arab photographers, exploring the idea of personal and collective identity in the modern Arab world.

The exhibition title is inspired by celebrated Syrian photographer Issa Touma. When asked recently if his work was political, he replied ‘Everything in the Middle East can be political if you have censorship. They do not like the freedom I have, but they also do not have much choice. I exist in some way. They cannot cancel me, so they need to accept me’.

Taking this quote as a starting point, The Bluecoat curators have brought together the work of a vast array of photographers to build up a picture of what these artists think of themselves and their culture.

Laura El-Tantawy’s striking images of a demonstration for democracy in Egypt are haunting and beautiful. The close-up shots of faces in the crowd tell a story of hope and determination, speaking louder than the voices of the protesters could ever shout. Displayed in a small dark room with spot lights trained on each framed photograph, the faces scream out to the viewer as they enter, crying for a solution.

Other photographers express their feelings about identity through humour, injecting a satirical undertone into their work. Lamya Gargash toys with optical illusion, grossly exaggerating her subjects’ personal flaws, and highlighting our obsession with superficiality. A man’s prominent chin is extended to caricature, whilst a woman’s cheeks sag with tiredness: our hang-ups are laid bare and made extreme to demonstrate their farce.

Tanya Habjouqa’s work is similarly ironic at first glance: images of Arab bodybuilders are hardly the norm in western culture, and Habjouqa humourously names her collection ‘Fragile Monsters’, hinting at the complex relationship these men have with their bodies.

Also interesting are George Awde’s images depicting ‘real’ Arab men: men with close friendships with other heterosexual men, and images intimately exploring these men’s problems with their appearance and surroundings.

Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel tackles the tricky and ever-controversial issue of the burkha. Almutawakel photographs the same female subject in a series, each image with a subtle difference, combining to give the viewer the opportunity to react to the sitter, based on her appearance. Her photographs in such close proximity illustrate the huge gulf between dressing conservatively and the religious decision to wear the full burkha. It seems that Almutawakel feels the burkha hides who a woman is: we can see no face, no hands, no individual – and it is this issue of personal identity that makes her work intrinsically linked to the theme of the exhibition.

I exist (in some way) continues at The Bluecoat until 14 July 2013, and is part of LOOK/13 and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival