BEIRUT: La Fabrique Des Illusions (The Illusion Machine), an exhibition offering a fresh, contemporary perspective on Lebanese patrimonial photography, has opened in the Special Exhibitions Hall at the Sursock Museum.
The project is a collaboration between Sursock Head of Collections Yasmine Chemali and François Cheval, the veteran French photographic critic and curator. It juxtaposes the Fouad Debbas collection, which comprises 45,000 photographs and postcards of Lebanon from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a very different group of photographic works from the modern era.
Fouad Debbas, who lived between Paris and Beirut, began his collection in 1975, when he came upon an album of nineteenth-century postcards of Lebanon for sale on banks of the River Seine. He realized that this material could constitute a valuable contribution to Lebanese history, and made it his mission to collect everything he could find.
A couple interacts with the Orientalist studio portraiture of Maison Bonfils during the opening night. (Annahar Photo)
According to curator Yasmine Chemali, it’s a difficult collection to exhibit. “It’s very biased and oriented, and you have to train the public to be able to understand it. You must remember that every image was gathered by one man with specific taste and a very melancholic and nostalgic way of thinking. It’s not surprising that he started collecting images in 1975, when the Civil War was starting in Beirut. In a way, Fouad Debbas created his own micro-theatre of this Orient that didn’t exist any more,” she said.
The care of this collection was Chemali’s first major project after coming to Lebanon from France in 2011. She masterminded the cataloging and cold storage of material that had been piled up in boxes and was in danger of irreparable damage. She also made significant progress with digitization. For example, 3,000 items are now freely available on the website of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.
When Sursock director Zeina Arida appointed her to her current position in 2014, Chemali gave one condition: “The collection had to come with me. I couldn’t just leave it behind me; it would die. And Zeina was very aware of its importance, so it was really a mutual decision.”
While a rotating selection of these photographs is now on constant display at the museum, the current exhibition is a much larger project that has been in the making for three years. It began when François Cheval, an expert in photography with a background in ethnography, and director for ten years of the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce, was brought in to offer a radical new perspective. Chemali said, “The idea was to try to get me to my limits, to get me to see the Fouad Debbas collection differently, and to bring a novel dimension.”
A shadow sculpture by British artist Mac Adams. (Annahar Photo)
One wall of the exhibition shows row upon row of studio portraits of Lebanese people in their traditional dress. Attached labels categorize them by sect, age and gender. The photographers (Maison Bonfils) were European. Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the standard approach is to analyze these as reductive fantasies, serving to justify and excuse colonialism.
The exhibition’s commentary doubles down on this reading, describing the subjects as “strangers in their own world.” Giving a tour of the collection on 23 February, Cheval went so far as to say: “Donc la photographie finalement les tue.” (“And so photography ultimately kills them.”)
However, there is an obvious tension between this perspective on photography and some of the contemporary work in the exhibition. For example, English artist Louis Quail’s photographs of his brother Justin, who suffers from schizophrenia, show the medium at its most warm, generous and expansive.
Quail said that he was aware of the potentially reductive and voyeuristic nature of photography. “I’m constantly trying to mitigate against that. My solution was to build layers and depth. One way was by making a film using my brother’s voice, and exhibiting his watercolors alongside my photographs,” adding that “the series is accompanied by a book, in which I am constantly trying to access his own thoughts, by including his poetry, and oddly, his police records.”
François Cheval giving a tour of the exhibition on 23 February. (Annahar Photo)
The exhibition promises to deliver a “contradictory and illegitimate” history of photography. Chemali said: “François and I, for the first time, are actually comparing contemporary photography and patrimonial photography. This is something that people don’t do. You have an audience for one, which is not the same as the audience for the other.”
She continued: “The second thing is that we were fed up of reading the same ideas, the same texts about Orientalist photography. It’s quite boring. Said did what he had to do in his book; all the museums are taking this ‘Orientalism’ prism to explain this photography. This was not what we wanted to do. This is why we say it’s illegitimate, because we are going on a new path. We know that it is risky. We are totally OK with that.”
La Fabrique Des Illusions is showing in the Sursock Museum Special Exhibitions Hall until 10 May.
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