PARIS.- Since the turn of the new century, photography has become the dominant medium on what is an effervescent and very diverse contemporary art scene throughout the Arab countries and in Iran, a scene which is now the subject of growing interest on the part of the international market. There is a multitude of exhibitions and publications dedicated to Arab and Iranian contemporary artists, including a significant exhibition held in London in January 2009 at the Saatchi gallery entitled Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East.
It is important to note that contrary to what is often assumed, there is a real fascination in the Arab countries and Iran for the photographic image, and the relationship with this medium goes back a long way. Europeans set out to photograph the biblical lands as early as the 1840s. Most well-known among them are Gustave Le Gray, Maxime Du Camp and Felice Beato. Photography studios soon opened in Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad, largely run by Armenians who widely contributed to the spread of the practice throughout the region. The story is somewhat different in Iran where the ruler himself, Nasser Al-Din Shah, who reigned from 1848 to 1896, became passionate about photography. He imported equipment and began to practice this new art himself. He even created a gallery in a wing of his palace in Tehran, the Golestan, to display his collection. The archives belonging to this prince of the Qajar era are still held in the palace to this day. It seems the time is right to pay tribute in a prestigious international arena like "Paris Photo" to what is a historically rich and now booming creative scene.
Inviting Catherine David to act as guest curator for this years special spotlight on the Arab and Iranian scene was an obvious choice. Since she directed Documenta X in 1997, she has led and developed a number of projects on Contemporary Arab Representations with exhibitions, seminars and publications in several cities around Europe. In particular, in 2007, she organized a monographic exhibition of the work of Irans great photographer Bahman Jalali at the Tapies Foundation in Barcelona. She also led a multi-disciplinary event called Di/Visions: Culture and Politics of the Middle East at the House of World Cultures in Berlin (Dec. 2007 to Jan. 2008). More recently, she conceived the ADACH Platform for the Visual Arts for the Abu Dhabi pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
For "Paris Photo", Catherine David has been entrusted with a project based on three key components. First is the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, an institution created in 1997 in Beirut dedicated to the photographic heritage of the Arab world. The selection of images in the Central Exhibition shows a variety of examples of studio photography from the 1870s to the 1960s. The Statement section is composed of eight galleries from Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon who unveil the work of emerging contemporary artists while the Project Room offers a programme of videos which testify to the growing interest among artists of the region for the dynamics of this medium.`
In addition to this platform, a large number of galleries in the general sector have chosen to pay tribute to the work of artists from the region, or to Western artists who have worked in the area, offering visitors a rare overview of historic and contemporary photographic production from and on the Arab countries and Iran.