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French Version

Algerian impressions from the palm of her hand

Randa Shaath's 'Algeria Bizzeff' steps back into color

Perhaps artists never really go on vacation. For photographers, in any case, it's nearly impossible to simply "turn off" that way of seeing - the process of mental exclusion and inclusion that precedes the framing of a shot, the subtle transformation of scene to image.

Digital technology is making it all the more difficult for photographers to take a holiday - or perhaps all the more easy to make the preliminary investigations that preface a new subject of study.

Randa Shaath's "Algeria Bizzeff" ("Algeria Abundance"), on display until the end of this week at Masrah al-Madina's Nuha Raidi Gallery, can be viewed from either of these angles. The show was mounted as part of the conference "Negotiating Diversity," organized by the Beirut-based Middle East office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a political group affiliated with the German Green Party.

"Bizzef," as Shaath explains in her artist's statement, is "a superlative frequently added to Algerian expressions," and adds: "I chose the word ... as the photos try to express the abundance of Algeria: historic civilizations, ethnic origins, architecture styles and geographic terrain."

"Algeria Bizzeff" doesn't rank as Shaath's most engaging work but as a preliminary inquiry it does have promise. At times, these images echo the concerns and compositions of the artist's acclaimed black-and-white studies of marginal Cairo - particularly "In the Heart of the Nile - Islands of Cairo" and "Under the Same Sky - Rooftops of Cairo." At others, they look like well-shot tourist photos.

Of Palestinian-Egyptian parentage, Shaath lived in Beirut from 1969 until 1977 before moving to Cairo and later to the US, where she earned a master's degree in visual communication from the University of Minnesota.

In 1994, Shaath worked as a photographer for Agence France Presse in Egypt and Gaza. She began working for the English-language newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly in 1993 and was the paper's principal photographer until 2005, when she went to Algeria.

Her previous work has focused on daily life in Palestine, Egypt's Nubian villages, as well as Cairo. Her work is unified by a concern with capturing the human condition of her subjects. Her most powerful shows have shared a strong thematic unity.

"My investment in life is my relationships with people," she told Gateway, a newsletter put out by the American University in Cairo, in early 2005. "I always try to capture the essence of the person whom I'm photographing even if it means that I meet that person three or four times before I start clicking."

Shaath's best-known work is in black-and-white but her oeuvre is far from monochrome. "In the Heart of the Nile" profiles the farmers and fishermen who live on Qursaya, one of three Nile islands just south of Cairo, whose lifestyle is endangered by urban development. "Under the Same Sky," the result of a 10-year stint living in a 14th-floor Cairo apartment, documents Cairenes from a broad swath of urban life, from artists to parking lot attendants.

The photos in "Algeria Bizzeff" were taken in 2005 and 2006 during Shaath's year-long stay in the country. She describes them as part of an effort to reconcile her own observations with both recollections she inherited from her activist parents and her own media-formed impressions.

"Photos of [my parents] carrying demonstration banners adorn our family album," Shaath writes. "They believed in the righteousness of the Algerian cause and thought of it as part of a path. A path of struggle to freedom, first Algeria, then Palestine would gain its independence.

"My own knowledge of Algeria was composed of media images of a recent bloody civil war that lasted over 10 years and killed around 200,000 Algerians, of devastating earthquakes, floods and destruction."

"Algeria Bizzeff" will be a departure for aficionados of Shaath's nuanced black-and-white work. The Algeria images are all in color - shot by a palm-sized digital camera. Their aesthetic, and the circumstances of their composition, adds to the touristic quality of this exhibition.

Shaath sheds some light on this departure in her artist's statement.

"In my previous projects, I would study my subjects, places and people I took photos of; I would have a story and an opinion to express.

"In Algeria the situation was different. This was my first visit. Everything was new, every detail surprising ... I was making visual notes, like writing in my diary, with quick shots of scenes that grabbed my attention and interest.

"There was always a surprise: in the country's variety and vastness, the relationships between people, men and women, the public body language, the vernacular dialect of Arabic and in the signs posted on streets and shops."

The aesthetics - the concern with the beauty embedded in mundane incongruities - betray the same eye as Shaath's work on Cairo rooftops and Nile islands. Indeed, her fondness for looking down on her subjects - or alternatively capturing them at tarmac level - replicates her previous approach.

What "Algeria Bizzeff" lacks is the same compelling uniformity of subject found in that earlier work. Her camera casts its gaze on the heart of Algiers and Oran as well as the desert, assessing the country's signage and architecture as often as the people themselves. It captures Algerians from a distant remove and in closer quarters, but seldom with the intimacy of her older work.

It will be interesting to see where Shaath's Algerian impressions move from here - whether they remain in their present form, or inspire studies of the depth and nuance of her other work.

Randa Shaath's "Algeria Bizzeff" is on view at Masrah al-Madina's Nuha Raidi Gallery until 26 May. For more information, please see www.boell-meo.org or call + 961 1 562 926

Beirut,05 31 2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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