Visuality and the “Right to See” at Photoquai 2014

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As Mirzoeff (1999) has us understand it, visuality saturates everyday life, to the extent that everyday life is wrapped up in the task of seeing, “paying” attention as he puts it and as Arvidsson has expounded. Maps manifest power over our relationship to space and movement as visualizations. Televised, digital, and physical advertisements asked to be looked at, and in doing so, exert their gaze to the extent that industrial capitalism wishes to visualize their markets. Even art, with its politics of style, collection and display, at once offers us a sensuous language with which to be countervisual and wraps us up in a cultural project of categorization, valuation and surveillance.

This year’s Photoquai exhibit entitled “Regarde-moi!” (Look at me!) presents an interesting case of visuality in contemporary photography. The exhibit guest curated for the Musée du Quai Branly by Spaniard Frank Kalero, brings together forty photographers from all over the world with the goal of having them present to us a view of life in their own country, images of elsewhere from elsewhere…

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The Quai Branly has had its fair share of controversy surrounding the nature of the objects it displays in the museum, largely from the collections of the old Musée de l’Homme, for their colonial past, their propensity to categorize and ‘other,’ and for their elevation of otherwise banal objects to spectacle status based on this otherness. A Saudi anthropologist once described this to me as the “ooga-booga” factor. The visuality proposed by the museum itself, where the ‘world out there’ is organized and visually presented according to a decidedly Western logic, seemed to need counterbalance. And the photos are stunning.

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“Arab Men” by Tamara Abdul Hadi

However, what seems to be on display in the public space of the Quai Branly, is merely the visualization of visualization, giving visual form to various disparate complexes of everyday visuality in their native contexts. The museum brings together a beautiful collection of photographs of “Arab Men” by Tamara Abdul Hadi (which surprised me with a photograph of my old friend from Fez), with a collection from Jordan showing scenes of people pursuing pleasures despite occupation. These collections both separately carry their own politics and visuality, despite the sincerity and beauty of the photographs. The photographer in both of these cases makes history – aesthetic, social, political, biological – visible to power local and diffuse, in global circulation. What the exhibition represents then is less a collecting, categorizing and display of photographs than of gazes. The subjects of the photos, asking (or not) the photographer “to look at me,” also seem visibly to exercise what Mirzoeff calls the “right to see” upon the photographer, creating hauntingly beautiful, playful, all-out engaging images. However, what they do not have a “right to see” is the complex of visuality proposed by the Museum’s collecting, and focusing the power of all of these gazes onto a public sidewalk, somewhere, out-there, right here.

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