Faces and places literally shape the Krannert Art Museum’s current exhibit Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography, which is currently on display through June 5. The collection channels a tradition of commercial portrait photography by Arab photographers, which has long gone overlooked and offers patrons a chance to glimpse into the eyes of a wide array of faces extracted from the 50,000 image catalogue at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut.
Foundation organizers Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari constructed the project to represent four areas of 20th Century photographic practice-identity photos, the Middle Eastern tradition of photo surprise, itinerant photography and instrumental group portrait photography, all of which are represented in their respective sectors of the exhibit. Not only an artistic endeavor, their touring selection stereophonically brings a personalized and individualized sampling of a rarely represented subject in Midwestern American museums. The images are absent of oft-seen cliches and religious obsession.
“In Mapping Sitting, we present … culturally specific works that raise questions about portraiture, performance, photography and identity in general,” the founders write in their introduction to the accompanying book of the same title. The visual journey demonstrates how Arab portrait photography has served as commodity, luxury, adornment record in multiple social contexts. The four partitions house people from beaches, studios, ski lifts and military records.
Raad, who is also co-curating the show with Zaatari, spoke at Krannert April 28. He is the founder of The Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation invented to research and document history in Lebanon. Mapping Sitting is but one incarnation of his vision, as it displays samplings of history in retrospective, as well as within the continuity of evolving Arab cultures.
The introduction to the exhibit-a wallpapering of headshots from passports, I.D. cards, licenses and permits-commences the study in faces via a collection of professionally shot facials from the northern Lebanese Studio Anouchian. The photographer, an Armenian named Antranik Anouchian, amassed the collection between 1935 and 1970, and together his subjects constitute not only a memorial of vintage countenances but also a record of personal Lebanese aesthetic deportment. One hundred-page portrait indexes (showcasing 150 shots per page) from Anouchian’s studio are also on display in glass cases containing men, women, couples and infants.
Fast-paced overlaid slideshows of the exhibit’s second topic, photo surprise, flash behind the entrance on television screens. The casually distanced style, which originated in France, struck massive popularity in the Middle East during the 1940s through 1960s. The pictures are, at their simplest, moments of pedestrian travel in urban environments, but just importantly they are instances of commodification as some subjects can be seen mugging to the camera, while others remain intentionally casual and ostensibly unaware. The photographs represented in the presentation come appropriately from the studio of Agop Kuyumjian, who helped pilot the strategy in Tripoli in 1945. Though pedestrians were photographed in seemingly average midday travels, they were handed business cards by the photographer who then sold them prints of themselves. Thus, the end results were creations of not only the artist but the subjects themselves whose deportments brandish insights into their own self-imaginations.
The largest and most prominent walls of Mapping Sitting belong to the third topic of itinerant photography. In these grids, though they are made up almost entirely of men, everyday people can be seen taking pauses from their recreational activities to pose for the camera-some more awkwardly than others. The beach shots feature swimmers splashing playfully and looking back at the camera with mixed expressions of carefree glee and bewilderment. The enlarged and rowed photos work sequentially, as well as individually, capturing movement and energy in the would-be models. The other half contains a more uniform pose upon sand and rocks as beachgoers take the role of temporary live sculptures outstretched and strutting.
Alongside the beach scenes are ski lift jockeys from a Muslim Boy Scout trip. Legs
dangling, the moments compiled on this wall contain some of the most lively and overtly performative posturings in Mapping Sitting.
Lastly, in the darkness of the back of the exhibit lies a scrolling projector with a visually collaged timeline of Iraqi and Egyptian military regiments. Sewn together chronologically, the group photos
follow the changing face of early 20th century military uniform and composition. The panning looks at group portrait and institution highlights. Though all of the other presentations collectivize individual identity, this last look is the only area to do so with the original product. Policemen and soldiers adorn professionally shot photos with solemn and dutifully straight faces.
Collectivizing the individual, cultural and social dimension of a bright spectrum of persons, Mapping Sitting hosts a grand vista of Arabic faces.