Akram Zaatari’s work method can be compared to that of an archaeologist – he excavates images, memories and stories. His interest in subjective historiography delves deep into our recent history, focusing on documents that can be personal, not to say intimate. Zaatari often works with existing documents such as photographs, diaries and sound recordings. His poetic works make abstract political events personal and highlight individual choice and responsibility. The exhibition Akram Zaatari – Unfolding is the largest presentation in Sweden so far of Zaatari’s oeuvre.
Akram Zaatari (b. 1966) has played a critical role in developing the formal, intellectual, and institutional infrastructure of Beirut’s contemporary art scene. He belonged to the handful of young artists who emerged from the delirious but short-lived era of experimentation in Lebanon’s television industry, which was radically reorganised after the country’s civil war (1975-1990). As a co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, a groundbreaking, artist-driven organisation devoted to the research and study of photography in the region, he has made invaluable and uncompromising contributions to the wider discourse on preservation and archival practice.
The Arab Image Foundation is also the source of several of Akram Zaatari’s artistic works, especially those based on the work of the photographer Hashem el Madani and Studio Shehrazade in Zaatari’s home town of Saida. As an artist he is not only interested in the stories they tell, but also in the media and communication channels themselves. He belongs to a generation of artists who are heirs to a conceptual and media-critical art that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom are rooted in photography. These artists move freely between documentation and subjectivity, between archive and memory. Zaatari’s interests and artistic methods can be regarded as part of an international tendency and were described by the art historian Hal Foster as an “archival impulse”.
“Zaatari and the Arab Image Foundation do not want to replicate the problematic aspects of collecting that is integral to the history of many museums, not least those institutions based on colonial plundering and the removal of cultural treasures from their origin. With his method of working, Zaatari presents stories that are personal yet profoundly universal,” says curator Magnus af Petersens.
Akram Zaatari’s major international breakthrough came when Letter to a Refusing Pilot (2013) was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The work is a tribute to the Israeli air force pilot Hagai Tamir who, one week after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, refused to bomb a target in Lebanon. Being an architect, Tamir could identify the building he was to bomb as either a hospital or a school. He turned his aircraft around and dropped his bombs over the sea. Tamir was one of many pilots who made this choice. The building, Saida Secondary School, was bombed a few hours later by another pilot. Akram Zaatari often heard rumours of this event in his youth, an event that eventually took on mythical proportions, and he himself retold it in a public discussion with the Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi in Paris several decades later. This led to Zaatari being contacted by a man who knew the pilot: the rumour was true.
“The film proposes the possibility of individual choice, of disobeying orders. This is an ethical and existential choice, in every sense of the word. People’s lives depend on it, but this option is often left out in the historical narratives of war,” Magnus af Petersens continues.
The exhibition Akram Zaatari – Unfolding presents a number of major groups of works, including Itinerary (2007/2015), Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem (2010/2012). The Mini Cinema also features a selection of Zaatari’s extensive output of films and videos.