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<i>Nazar</i>: Photographs from the Arab World

Photographic images of the countries of the Arab world in the past have primarily come from news cameras documenting violence and repression – but increasingly, Arab artists and photojournalists are offering more personal and fuller visions of their land and culture. Some of that work was on display recently at a show in New York City.

Photography in both art and journalism has recently begun to flourish in Arab culture, according to Diana Edkins, who brought the show, called Nazar, to New York’s Aperture Foundation. “It’s the work of 17 established and emerging artists from the Arab world,” said Ms. Adkins, “They are looking at gender, religion, personal history, the war, identities.”

A work by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, for example, portrays female figures progressively more veiled – ranging from a young girl whose hair is uncovered, to a woman shrouded from head to toe. All four figures are covered with writings in henna from the artist’s own diaries about her feelings about being a woman. “She is showing a world very private, very personal, but also quite universal,” Ms. Edkins commented.

Similarly, she said, Palestinian-born Tarek Al-Ghoussein makes self-portraits that challenge Western stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists. And Moroccan teacher Hicham Benohoud photographs tableaux that his students themselves dream up – like a boy’s head emerging from a pyramid of paper that floats over the classroom like a mountain in a Japanese landscape.

The late Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo’s glamour shots of Cairo’s elite inspired many of the photographers in the show, says Diana Edkins – especially the young Egyptian Youssef Nabil, who makes delicately tinted images of lovers and alluring women. “He has used Van Leo’s work as a springboard to his own, very personal work,” Ms. Edkins said, “which are all hand-painted to achieve this very romantic and dreamy state.”

Other work in Nazar is equally personal but more straightforward, like Greta Torossian’s Beirut cityscapes, Palestinian photographer Noel Jabbour’s images of the wall erected by Israel, or Algerian artist Farida Hamak's portraits of Shi’ite refugees living in a decaying palace.

“As a Muslim-American, all this speaks to me really well. And looking at this series, it makes me really happy that my dad was a liberal,” said Farah Khawaja, a young American of Pakistani descent, looking at Lalla Essaydi’s work. She was among a group of design students from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology who visited the show on a recent day. They had strong reactions, especially to Ms. Essaydi’s veiled women and to the work of photojournalist Ahmed Jadallah.

“You don’t see this stuff every day,” said a classmate, Michael Iny, pointing at a photograph of a Palestinian boy holding a gun. “Like, you may see it on TV, but to see it from the perspective of the photographer, it’s just really moving.”

“A photograph can have so much impact on you,” said Andrea Lombardo, “not that you’re actually there, but it almost feels like that in a sense, that you get the feelings of the picture.” Nazar, which means “insight,” or “seeing” in Arabic, was culled from a larger exhibit by the Dutch Noorderlicht Photography Foundation. It travels back to Europe now for more shows on that continent. Plans are also underway for exhibits in Ramallah, Istanbul, Amman and Beirut.