Autonomy of Self : Rejecting violence with the lens in former Ottoman territories

by Joy Stacey

Exhibition featuring Moufida Fedhila, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Sejla Kameric, Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Nadia Mounier and Joy Stacey

P21 Gallery, London, September 11- October 31 2015

Autonomy of Self was my first curated group exhibition, bringing together moving image and photography from across the former Ottoman territories to explore how individuals are using the human image to refuse violence and conflict. Consequences of the Empire’s collapse in 1922, and the impact of subsequent interventions from “Western” states still resonate in the identity and actions of countries in this territory today. Diverse cultures and conflicts are fundamentally connected through this shared history, from the Bosnian war to the invasion of Iraq and now the rise of Daesh (ISIS/IS/ISIL). With political representation in deficit for many, individuals are instead utilising the democracy of visual technologies, and presenting themselves to the lens to claim alternate representation in the face of violence.

 The product of my independent research conducted between my Masters degree and doctoral studies, the exhibition responded to Ariella Azoulay’s Civil Contract of Photography (MIT Press, 2008), expanding on her writing to explore how the lens-based image made in conflict is produced, used and exhibited to create visual representation where political representation is absent. What The Civil Contract of Photography addresses is the problem of the photographic image being understood to be merely a stolen moment, disconnected from its past. Azoulay acknowledges that the political acts and personal transactions that led to a photograph ‘taken on the verge of catastrophe’ are inseparable from the person in the image: the photograph is merely a moment in the event of photography.

 Whilst Azoulay’s attention to the power of those creating the image forms the cornerstone of this exhibition, her writing fails to address lens-based images beyond photographs spontaneously taken at the ‘verge of catastrophe’. Through Autonomy of Self I questioned this limited perspective and explore more complex images created with the lens, in the light of violence that extends beyond a single moment. There are diverse temporalities and legacies in acts of violence and conflict, which in them selves are not necessarily visible at all. In response to these acts tangibly vocal artworks are being calculated, created, manipulated and exhibited in diversely performed constructs. Visual representation is being utilised where political representation is lacking.

 The concept for the exhibition was developed from my own research and practice developed in Palestine. In my work I explore photographic representations of Palestinian identity that are created and performed for an international audience. In order to offer an alternative to press images that implicitly label Palestinians as either victims or terrorists, images of individuals in traditional costumes are being used by Palestinians to promote, within tourism, an alternative notion of national identity. This relationship between the individual within the image and their anticipated audience is explored in my installation The Tourist (2013).

 In other exhibited works, the experience of living through the siege of Sarajevo underpins Šejla Kamerić’s artworks, in which she uses self-portraiture to question perceptions of her identity as a Bosnian woman. In Bosnian Girl (2003), Kamerić subverts abusive misogynistic graffiti left by a Dutch soldier – present as part of the UN effort to protect the population – overlaying the writing onto her own image as she subverts objectification, defiantly staring from the image. In 30 Years After (2006), Kamerić again uses her own image to reflect upon memory, denial of atrocity, and the financial beneficiaries of war, adopting a persona adorned in elaborate jewellery whilst hiding her eyes from the past.

 In a very different example, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji was born in Baghdad in 1960 and witnessed the rise of Hussein; the trauma of the loss and violence he witnessed in his own home underpins his films, which respond to the invasion of Baghdad in 2003 and his visit to his home city 8 years later. In Born April 9th and Seven Days in Baghdad the artist projected images onto his own flesh: the former artwork subverts media images of destruction as witnessed by the artist from his home in the Netherlands, while the latter projects footage of the transformed streets onto the artist’s profile, created after his return to Iraq eight years later. The artist’s presence confronts us as he mourns the horrors through his own image.

 To coincide with the exhibition a series of talks and screenings were included in a public program, including a symposium with the artists hosted by Photography and the Archive Research Centre, University of the Arts London. Through the debate, which was chaired by Max Houghton (London College of Communication), issues of the recording of traumas and memories of past conflict and the role of urban performance art as a response to unfolding events were discussed.

 Other talks included Memories of Beirut and Tunis: Transformed Cities and the Family Album, in which Leslie Hakim-Dowek (University of Portsmouth) and Dora Carpenter-Latiri (University of Brighton) discussed their photographic practices in relation to their respective diasporas and family albums. Screenings included Nouritza Matossian’s documentary Hrant Dink: Heart of Two Nations, and Sejla Kameric’s film 1395 Days Without Red, courtesy of Artangel.

 Autonomy of Self was created with support from Arts Council England and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.