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View From Inside

FotoFest battles stereotypes and ignorance with an unprecedented look at the Arab world

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Jowahara Al Saud New Year Fotofest 2014 Biennial
Jowahara Al Saud (Saudi Arabia), New Year, 2010; from the series Out of Line. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Gharem Path
Abdulnasser Gharem (Saudi Arabia), Siraat (The Path), 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery, Dubai/London
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Fatmi Save Manhattan
Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), Save Manhattan, 2004-2013, installation. Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Essaydi Harem
Lalla Essaydi (Morocco), Harem Revisited #36, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Mater Later Be Past
Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia), Later Be Past, 2013; from the series Desert of Pharan. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Sabella In Exile
Steve Sabella (Palestine), In Exile, 2008; from the series Exile, 2008–2009. Courtesy of the artist and Berloni Gallery, London
Jowahara Al Saud New Year Fotofest 2014 Biennial
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Gharem Path
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Fatmi Save Manhattan
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Essaydi Harem
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Mater Later Be Past
FotoFest 2014 Biennial Sabella In Exile

Following its acclaimed 2012 exploration of Russian photography, the FotoFest Biennial returns Saturday with some of the biggest names in contemporary art from the Arab world.

In a massive four-location exhibition titled View from Inside, FotoFest presents nearly 50 photo-based artists from the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom will be displaying work to American audiences for the first time.

The show — on view at FotoFest's new headquarters in the Silver Street Studios complex as well as at Williams Tower, Winter Street Studios and Spring Street Studios — offers a fresh perspective on recent art from a region rarely represented in Western galleries and museums.

This year's biennial marks a major turning point for Fotofest as founders Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss begin to hand the reigns to executive director Steven Evans. Appointed in late January, Evans is expected to continue the organization's ever-evolving approach to photography as both documentary medium and artform.

Co-curated by Watriss and noted Arab art scholar Karin Adrian von Roques, the biennial exhibit purposely avoids imposing a sweeping artistic themes onto a truly diverse range of work.

"We hope to move people away from the stereotypes they may have about the Arab world." 

"Artists are a sort of mirror of what's happen in a certain time and place," von Roques tells CultureMap. "We wanted to make sure their voices were heard, not the curators."

As such, works are arranged in smaller groupings that touch upon issues like identity, conflict, family, religion and displacement.

To find the strongest examples of contemporary Arab art and photography, the curators culled through thousands of works by hundreds of artists, choosing pieces based on an artist's ideas and execution rather than preconceived curatorial categories. In the end, their selections defied any single, unified theme.

"The danger in creating a theme for a show is that you have to fit the work into a particular topic," von Roques says. "Instead, this exhibition is about the artists and the issues important to them, which is why we titled the show View from Inside . . . We hope to move people away from the stereotypes they may have about the Arab world."

Taking center stage at this year's biennial show is Edge of Arabia (EOA), a London-based gallery and arts initiative aimed at introducing Middle Eastern artists to a broader international public.

Work by two of the group's prominent artist-founders — Abdulnasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater, both of Saudi Arabia — remains high on von Roques' must-see list for anyone new to contemporary Arab art. (Side note: One of Gharem's pieces sold at Christie's Dubai for more than $800,000. The artist couldn't attend the 2011 auction due to his prior commitments as a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army.)

The curator also recommends work by EOA-affiliated installationists Shadia Alem and Mounir Fatmi, from Saudi Arabia and Moracco respectively, as well as new pieces from acclaimed Palestinian photo artist Steve Sabella.

The 15th FotoFest International Biennial kicks off Saturday with an opening night party at 7 p.m. inside Spring Street Studios (not at the organization's former Vine Street location). Click here for more information and a list of the biennial's 100-plus participating gallery spaces.

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