I’m interested in the societal impact of unequal power relations between the West and the Middle East, and how that domination is articulated through photographs. By using Albumen printing, a popular print process of the 19th and early 20th century, I am evoking a near century in which the West controlled the Middle East. Photography studios were largely run by Western photographers, and the images they produced were valued as characterizations of the region. The appetite for the exotic, the distant lands and peoples living a simpler time – by Western audiences meant the Orientalist photographer’s vision of Middle Eastern women were captured to express inferiority, picturesqueness of native culture and as the exotic sexual object. In one photograph, the once compulsorily ceramic water jug is now shaped as a massive wasp’s nest or a Molotov cocktail and is hoisted high above the subject’s head. Dressed in all white, the subject depicts the Herculean task of surviving conflict, especially when one’s humanity isn’t afforded to them through their representation. In another image, the mashrabiya, the Arabesque latticework of carved wood normally found on the windows of Iraqi or Egyptian homes, is substituted by laced razor-wire cutouts. They trap the subject’s face into a box formed as a water pipe– another compulsorily cultural object found in most of the historical Oriental photographs of Middle Eastern women. "Carry Over" recalls and subverts historical Orientalist portraits made of Middle Eastern women. Women were often depicting carrying vessels of bread or water on their head and staged lounging with “oriental” props that built an uncritical fantasy of the hidden harem for Western audiences. My work amplifies the physical burden of representation found in those photographs, while using traditional processes from the colonial era. The project resists superficial analysis that reduces Middle Eastern women’s rights and opportunities to what they do and don’t wear, which keeps them affixed to assumed subordinate positions in the imagination of others.
I feel extremely fortunate to have served as the juror for CENTER’s 2019 Project Development Grant. The breadth and diversity of submitted projects was truly impressive, and through the process of reviewing hundreds of submissions I was exposed to an astounding array of new work. Many of the submitted projects address urgent issues of our time -- including series related to climate crises, global migration, and visibility of at-risk or oppressed populations, among many other complex and often-intersecting subjects. Though perhaps not obvious from first glance, Sama Alshaibi's Carry Over is such a project. (To use the artist's own words from her accompanying statement, "the project resists superficial analysis.") Ingeniously and exquisitely conceived utilizing a photographic process associated with the early histories of the medium -- albumen printing -- Alshaibi's work not only looks back, but also reflects upon the current moment and the persistent effects of these photographic histories on contemporary representations of women. These pictures employ and interrogate the characteristics found in Orientalist portraits produced by Western-run studios for Western audiences, while also bringing them forward to bear on subsequent generations including our own, reminding us how -- to use Alshaibi's words -- "domination is articulated through photographs."