Photographs taken in a studio above a cinema in Lebanon and showing people of the same sex kissing or tenderly embracing have gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Double Take: Akram Zaatari and the Arab Image Foundation (which runs until 3 September 2017) includes images taken from the early 1950s to the 1970s at Studio Shehrazade, a popular photographic studio run by Hashem el Madan in Saida.
The photographs were discovered in 1998 by the contemporary Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari and incorporated into the collection of the Arab Image Foundation, an organisation co-founded by Zaatari to collect and study images from the Arab world. As part of an ongoing archeological project, Hashem el Madani: Studio Practices, Zaatari has selected images from Madani’s archive to put back into circulation today. Madani’s studio became a theatre for people to act out different identities. The poses may have been influenced by popular films, which were screened in the cinema underneath Studio Shehrazade, and the element of performance is reinforced by the studio backdrops and props.
By returning to these historical documents, Zaatari explores the specific cultural and political histories contained within Madani’s portraits. Saida’s conservative culture in the 1950s and 1960s did not permit men and women to socialise outside marriage, and physical contact was strongly discouraged. Tactile gestures were rehearsed among members of the same sex, often friends or relatives, not necessarily couples. Madani recalls that "people were willing to play the kiss between two people of the same sex, but very rarely between a man and a woman". He remembers this happening only once.
Akram Zaatari is a filmmaker, photographer and curator. In 1997, he co-founded the Arab Image Foundation with photographers Fouad Elkoury, Walid Raad, and Samer Mohdad. His work is largely based on collecting, studying and archiving the photographic history of the Arab World. Akram Zaatari was selected to represent Lebanon at the 2013 Venice Biennale by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curators for the Lebanese Pavilion.
Main image: From Hashem el Madani: Studio Practices by Akram Zaatari, 2007: Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, early 1970s. Hashem el Madani. Tate: Presented by Tate International Council 2008 | Copyright: Akram Zaatari, courtesy of Hashem el Madani and Arab Image Foundation, Beirut