Bowling along in a taxi to the Alliance Francaise building on Sarkies Road in Singapore, with a Francophone friend, I marvelled that only the day before I left England, I had been reading about an exhibition that I would have loved to attend, but it was too far away - all the way in London. And here I was in Singapore, heading to that same exhibition… albeit a briefer version of it.
The photographer Rania Matar's work is reminiscent of another Lebanese artist I love - the director, writer and actress Nadine Labaki, of Caramel fame. Caramel is one of my favourite 'womanish' films, inspired by the same determination to represent the Middle East as a place of ordinary lives rather than the bombings, terrorism and kidnappings favoured by Western media. Labaki set her film in a beauty salon, focusing on the lives of the four women who work, live and tend to each other's lives. Matar focuses on girls and young women in their own rooms. Music, laughter, spontaneous teasing and dancing are missing from Matar's exhibition, which is of course silent, but a strong narrative emanates from each image…
There was an abundance of teddy bears and a profusion of the colour pink - creating a particular impact against the shadows elsewhere. And then suddenly, a giant gaping hole in a wall behind a young girl, in whose eyes, so much. Her head is heavy, tired, resting, against a plush cushion, an ornate sofa. A certain kind of poverty against a certain kind of wealth. In the Bourj El Shamali camp, light creates magic and innocence at the tips of a little girl's curls. Behind her, the reality of refugee women.
Interspersed are large black and white photographs of nuns, redolent of rebellion, sitting on terraces, drinking black coffee. I expected cigarettes. Their black habits like a warning against being inopportune. Who would dare?
And the final picture, of a courting couple (this time, cigarette packets in their palms) – the man’s eyes hidden by sunglasses facing slightly away from the camera, unseeing; but the woman? She has her back to us. She is tall, slender (the hijab hides nothing of her elegant figure) and she is gazing at the sea, beyond the sea, to a life less ordinary than hers. There is something voyeuristic about the photographs, naturally, but in every pair of eyes, there is complicity. No one was stealing their soul. They were willing and wanting to connect. Even challenging us, to connect.
Rania Matar's website: http://www.raniamatar.com