Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bidoun, an Influential Magazine of the Middle East, Extends Its Reach


Front covers of the art magazine Bidoun. Credit Bidoun

This month, Bidoun put its entire archive of thousands of stories and artworks online with free access and asked cultural figures, including the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, to create small collections of their favorites. The archive, at turns zany and poignant, is a photo album of a long and dramatic decade, from the aftermath of Sept. 11 to the reverberations of the Arab Spring.
“Bidoun was born of a particular moment — the post 9/11 period — and was founded by a bunch of people who are Middle Eastern in a broad sense,” said Negar Azimi, a senior editor. She described her cohort as “people who grew up speaking multiple languages, maybe all of them badly,” or who came of age “listening to heavy metal in Tehran or Egyptian tape metal in Kuwait.”

A photo spread from the spring 2011 issue of Bidoun. Credit Bidoun

Ms. Azimi, who is Iranian-American and grew up in Europe and the United States, added: “Our vision of the Mideast extends to India, it extends to L.A. It certainly doesn’t fulfill the expectations of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ vision that’s so pervasive.”
For a magazine whose circulation has never gone above 10,000, Bidoun has had an outsize influence, especially in the art world. “Bidoun’s arrival was a clear signal that a new digital cosmopolitanism had arrived with the early aughts,” said Stuart Comer, the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Conceived in the spirit of an era in which citizenship is no longer a secure certainty,” he said, “it has become a hub for a sprawling network of artists, writers, curators and designers” who he said are also drawn to offerings like Home Works, at the Ashkal Alwan cultural center in Beirut; the Sharjah Biennial; the Cinémathèque de Tanger; and Art Dubai.
Bidoun means “without” — as opposed to “within” — in Arabic and Farsi. “When I came up with the name, I was struggling,” said Lisa Farjam, the magazine’s founding editor and an Iranian-American who was then living in Europe. “I felt like I was without a place,” she said. “I belong to many places and none. That was when I found that word. It meant a lot to me.”
Ms. Farjam’s father, a businessman based in Dubai, backed the magazine until it became a nonprofit in 2010, based in New York. The magazine’s most recent print edition came out in 2013. Since then, its staff members, all but one of whom are now volunteers, have been working on curatorial projects and events with institutions including New York University, the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut and the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Over the years, Bidoun has been a testing ground for artists including the French-Moroccan Yto Barrada and Sophia Al-Maria, who is half Bedouin Arab, half Norwegian and whose work in Bidoun later became her 2012 memoir, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth.” Next year, she is to have a show at the Whitney Museum.
The magazine has also allowed readers to rediscover the writer and artist Etel Adnan, who was born in 1925 and whose life traces the complexities of the Arab situation in the 20th century. (Ms. Adnan was interviewed in Bidoun and also wrote on the little magazines from Beirut and Morocco that influenced her in the ’50s and ’60s, an era of transformation across the Arab world.)
In Bidoun in 2008, the Chicago-based American artist Michael Rakowitz did a series of cartoon drawings called “Strike the Empire Back,” about Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and his obsession with “Star Wars.” The first Iraqi screening of “Star Wars” is believed to have been held at a private event at Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters in March 1980, six months before the start of the Iran-Iraq war, and the 15-year-old Uday attended.
In 1995, Uday formed the Fedayeen Saddam, a violent paramilitary organization, and presented his father with a prototype for its helmet, modeled on that of Darth Vader. In July 2003, United States forces found and killed Uday and his brother Qusay. In 2010, Mr. Rakowitz’s piece became part of an exhibition of his work at the Tate Modern.
In 2011, Bidoun produced an issue on the Tahrir Square uprising that led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, before the return of military rule in 2014. Called “a rather brief moment in time,” the issue is fractured, impressionistic “like a French film,” said Michael C. Vazquez, a senior editor. The aim, he added, was to capture “whatever it means to betray a moment of revolutionary possibility.”
To make the issue, Bidoun held meetings, often at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, and produced a kind of oral history. Interview subjects included teenage bloggers; newspaper editors; a tour guide at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (the issue also featured lists of artworks stolen from it during the uprising); a journalist whose books on the Mubaraks had been banned and the Egyptian novelist Mahmoud Othman, whose self-published novel “Revolution 2053” in some ways anticipated the rebellion.
Bidoun has also sought to broaden the conventions of travel writing by giving space to writers who are often hard to categorize. It published the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina reflecting on the viral success of his Granta essay “How to Write About Africa,” and personal essays by the Los Angeles-based writer Gary Dauphin, a former editor in chief of Africana.com and BlackPlanet.com; the Indian writer Achal Prabhala; and the cultural critic Sukhdev Sandhu.
In 2009, Bidoun began a library project, a collection of about 3,000 books ranging from pulp fiction to more intellectual works, that “documents the innumerable ways that people have depicted and defined — that is, slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, hyperbolized, ventriloquized, photographed, surveyed, and/or exhumed — the vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as ‘the Middle East,’” the magazine’s website reads.
The library has been put on view in six cities, including at the New Museum in New York and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
Bidoun was sold at high-end bookshops from New York to Paris but often struggled with distribution in the Middle East. Putting the archives online is a way to reach more readers.
“So many times someone said, ‘Oh I wish I could see that issue.’ And now it’s finally there,” Ms. Farjam, the founding editor, said. “Now it’s cemented in the ether forever.”

Best Ph Books of 2015

The Best Photo Books of 2015

Writing about photography, reading about photography and thinking about how to take photographs are seamless activities for me. They inform one another in ways I can’t fully separate. A great photo book, even more than an exhibition, is where these things all come together. A photo book costs a lot of money to make and is unlikely to sell very many copies. But it is as essential a part of the culture as a good jazz album or a book of poems; and it possibly has as dedicated and fractious an audience as those modestly popular genres. There’s still such consolation and excitement in the swish of paper and the smell of ink, in the fact of stitching and the solidity of a hardcover. I didn’t acquire too many photo books this year — only about a hundred, all told — but I made an effort to seek out a wide variety. These are eight I particularly liked.
  1. Photo

    William Eggleston, “The Democratic Forest”
    “I am at war with the obvious,” Eggleston declares in his afterword for this massive compendium of pictures shot in the 1980s. He makes good on the promise. These photographs all have the look and feel we have come to expect of Eggleston’s work: an uncanny balance of the arbitrary and the meticulous, conveyed in vivid, almost painfully intense color. The images are democratic in the sense of how varied and inclusive they are. Eggleston shoots parked cars, flower vases, cemeteries, gas stations and piles of dirt, and each photograph in these long, glorious sequences (there are 10 volumes in all, with titles like “Pittsburgh,” “Berlin” and “The Pastoral”) merits its place. There are few photographers whose images I would wish to see more than a thousand of in a single sitting. Eggleston is easily in that class.
    Steidl, 1,328 pages, 1,010 images.
  2. Photo

    Mickalene Thomas, “Muse”
    Thomas’s photographs share the funky complexity of the paintings for which she’s better known. Pattern interweaves with pattern, foreground and background tussle without resolution and color gallops through these images, most of them portraits and many of them featuring collage. Thomas is a playful and intense explorer of the self-presentation of beautiful women. She draws on the great Malian photographer Seydou Keita’s celebratory approach to portraiture, and at the same time offers a riposte to the Orientalizing gaze of paintings like Manet’s “Olympia.” The black skin of these glammed-up superheroes is often the only thing in these photos that is not a riot of ornament and color, but blackness as photographed by Thomas is a riot all its own.
    Aperture, 156 pages, 85 images.
  3. Photo

    David Campany, “A Handful of Dust”
    The curator David Campany’s new book accompanies an exhibition of the same name, and proceeds in a free-associative manner. This “speculative history” obsessively considers things that look similar, work in similar ways, are made of the same substance or are linked to one another by faint but undeniable threads. Its starting point is Man Ray’s 1920 photograph of about a year’s worth of dust gathered on the surface of Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture “The Large Glass.” But the book somehow wends its way to aerial reconnaissance photography, abstract landscapes, forensics, American dust storms, artists’ videos and the Iraq War. The cumulative effect is brilliant, almost novelistic, and the book comes with a removable insert featuring an equally brilliant essay by Campany.
    Le Bal/Mack, 232 pages, 180 images.
  4. Photo

    Dayanita Singh, “Museum of Chance”
    Dayanita Singh often describes the photobook as her primary medium. What she goes for in the form — and what she richly achieves in “Museum of Chance,” her latest — is a kind of narrative that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. In collaboration with the famously detail-oriented publisher Gerhard Steidl, Singh brings together a variety of her photographs and through them conveys a mysterious and uncannily coherent story. The printing in this book is exemplary: The black tones are rich and profound, the whites subtle and creamy. Singh’s story in “Museum of Chance” has something to do with breezes, white curtains, rooms full of dusty files, Bollywood actors, musicians at rehearsal, night phantoms. But like a tightly edited song cycle, the project is impossible to reduce to its synopsis. It unfolds, one page after the other, like a dream.
    Steidl/MMK Museum/Umeå University, 96 pages, 88 images.
  5. Photo

    “Kim” is Kim Kardashian West, and “Selfish” is her book of hundreds of her selfies. She doesn’t waste time refuting the predictable accusations. She instead goes full-bore on the project, with artful and convincing obsessiveness. Many of the pictures are imperfect, taken in low light, and with lurid colors — which is part of why they are good photos. West’s aesthetic is an amateur’s, sure, but it also owes something to the likes of Jürgen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans. The captions are very funny, too. At the beginning of one section, she writes: “I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many selfies as I did in Thailand. It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever traveled to!” This is followed by shot after shot of her face, or of herself in a bikini, and very little background. West has cracked the Oscar Wilde code: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
    Rizzoli, 448 pages.
  6. Photo

    You’re never quite sure what you’re looking at in Letinsky’s “Ill Form and Full Void.” Are these photographs of stains? Are they photographs of fruit? Or photographs of photographs? Her carefully assembled still lives query the gap between things and pictures of things. There are pages ripped from magazines like Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart Living, as well as her own past work, art made by her friends and actual objects, all set in expanses of white space. There’s more going on here than simple trompe l’oeil. Letinsky updates the vanitas still life for the 21st century, with lessons drawn from the Dutch masters — leftovers and dirty utensils signal the ephemerality of earthly pleasures — and a vigorous dash of Cy Twombly along the way: tendril, splash, tight little knots of inscrutable color.
    Radius Books, 128 pages, 50 images.
  7. Photo

    Xu Yong, “Negatives”
    Xu Yong had a camera with him on June 4, 1989, during the protests in Tiananmen Square. He took many photographs that day, but he did not print or publish them. But what makes the appearance of these images in book form remarkable is hinted at in the title, “Negatives”: Xu has presented the photos in the form of enlarged negatives. (The photos can be viewed as positives through the camera of a cellphone, with “invert colors” switched on in the phone’s settings.) The negatives have a ghostly tinge, and effectively introduce a distance into our viewing of the events of that still-resonant day. Though Xu himself is careful to disavow any political intent, the long wait to publish the book, as well as the fact of its being published in Hong Kong, makes clear the ongoing censorship faced by the Chinese pro-democracy movement.
    New Century Media & Consulting, 72 pages.
  8. Photo

    Fazal Sheikh, “Erasure Trilogy”
    Fazal Sheikh’s “Erasure Trilogy” takes on one of the most difficult and sensitive contemporary subjects — the Israeli occupation of Palestine — with seriousness, candor and depth. The project is published as three hardback volumes of photographs and an accompanying softcover insert of explanatory text.In one volume, Sheikh, a New Yorker who has spent his career photographing displaced people around the world, uses aerial photography to look at efforts to make the “desert bloom” through afforestation projects on land in the Negev, from which Bedouins have been expelled. In another, he photographs Israelis and Palestinians of different ages, one for each year since the nakba of 1948. A third volume, titled “Memory Trace,” is an exploration of the ruins of Palestinian villages and other physical evidence of destruction and loss. “Erasure Trilogy” is a challenging and meticulous work of witness about a serious historical wrong.
    Steidl, 438 pages.
  9. The Times Magazine’s Photo Department’s Favorite Photo Books of 2015

  10. Photo

    Alec Soth, “Songbook”
    Mack, 144 pages, 75 images.
  11. Photo

    Richard Learoyd, “Day for Night”
    Aperture/Pier 24 Photography, 328 pages.
  12. Photo

    Nicholas Nixon, “About Forty Years”
    Fraenkel Gallery, 180 pages.
  13. Photo

    Viviane Sassen, “Umbra”
    Prestel, 196 pages.
  14. Photo

    Harry Gruyaert, “Harry Gruyaert”
    Thames & Hudson, 144 pages.
  15. Photo

    Petra Collins, editor, “Babe”
    Prestel Verlag, 176 pages, 166 images.
  16. Photo

    Joachim Ladefoged, “After My Time”
    Gyldendal, 104 pages.
  17. Photo

    Kamoinge, “Timeless”
    Schiffer, 392 pages.
  18. Photo

    Red Hook Editions, 140 pages, 75 images.
  19. Photo

    Jiazazhi Press, 108 pages.
  20. Photo

    Honorable Mention
    Walter Chandoha, “The Cat Photographer”
    Aperture, 112 pages, 58 images.