Young photographers based in the Gulf explored questions of belonging on an artistic journey to Turkey


It was a provocative idea for Istanbul-based curator Özge Ersoy to pose to a group of young photographers. “We’re not saying people should stop producing images,” she explained, “but that how and why they produce images should be questioned.”

Encountering new ideas and challenging their own preconceptions was exactly what had brought the six image-makers to Turkey as part of the latest Jameel Journey. This series of collaborative initiatives aims to broaden the horizons of young artists from the Gulf region through work and travel in other countries.

“We’re trying to create an environment where they can learn to speak critically about art, where they can learn from their peers and from professionals who are further along in their career path,” says Imogen Ware, managing director of the U.K.-based charity Crossway Foundation, which organised the trip in partnership with Art Jameel. “There are challenges posed just by taking the participants out of their own context; we kind of throw them in the deep end and expect them to swim.”

On previous Jameel Journeys to Japan and Brazil, this included trying out Butoh interpretative dance or the martial art Capoeira. On the 11-day trip to Turkey in mid-May, it meant trekking through the volcanic landscape of Cappadocia, trying to find unique ways to depict one of the country’s most photographed places. It also meant having just three days to prepare an exhibition and a publication — something many of the largely self-taught photographers had never done before.

The exhibition, which ran from May 22 to June 4 at Ka Atölyesi in Ankara, was entitled It’s a bad word, ‘belong,’ and addressed the journey theme of “migration” in a broad way befitting the diverse backgrounds represented by the young artists, all previously short-listed applicants to the annual Art Jameel Photography Award.

“Our programme is unusual in being open to both nationals and residents of Gulf countries,” explains Ware. “Identities in the region can be quite complex and many of the participants have histories of migration within their personal stories.”

For the Ankara exhibition, photographer Rawan Alhusaini, a 26-year-old Palestinian studying in Bahrain, created a series of images of Turkish-language signs and advertisements, which she said evoked the effect of “being bombarded with a totally new language” as a migrant, something that can instil “a feeling of helplessness and alienation.”

Marwan Haredy, a 20-year-old Egyptian-Lebanese artist living in the U.A.E., wrapped his portrait photographs in cling film to represent the feeling of suffocation that can come with repeated dislocation.

Others focused on the resilience shown by migrants, rather than the strain they can experience. Saudi artist Mohammed Shibli, 25, juxtaposed photos of plants and flowers in the urban environment with maps and images of migration routes, likening “the way plants rise up against walls within the crammed spaces of the city” to “how people move across borders in search of a better life.”

An exhibition of work by the six artists who participated in the Jameel Journey to Turkey is planned for a yet-to-be-announced location in the U.A.E. this autumn.

by Jennifer Hattam

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Urban Art Issue #37, on pages 24-25