Photos challenge images of Arab women 

"Not Given: Talking Of and Around Photographs of Arab Women," on view at SF Camerawork through May, is not what you might think.

Given today’s socio-political climate surrounding the Arab world and the Middle East, one might expect to find highly politicized images in the installation. One might assume there would be many photographs of women in traditional Arab garb, with long sleeves and full body-length dress.

Instead, as the title astutely suggests, nothing in this exhibition is a given. It’s a tremendous selection of photographs, curated by art historian Dore Bowen and French artist Isabelle Massu, culled from the Arab Image Foundation, an archive of 75,000 images.

For example, there is "Miss Nadia Abdel Wahad," a stunning picture of a woman wearing a bustier and a watch and taking off her stocking. Taken in 1959 in a Cairo, Egypt studio by photographer Van Leo (though it’s inspired by 1940s cinema), the photo’s subject’s sexiness is somewhat aloof.

Similarly unexpected are photographs of Arab children dressed in Western attire. A young girl is shown wearing the typical uniform of an American cowboy, in an image that is seemingly torn from the pages of a typical American family’s photo album.

While the images themselves are amazing, the real gem in this collection is the superb analysis and discussion of the how the Arab Image Foundation archives its collection. Like most archives, these photographs are organized and governed by a hierarchy of terms and cataloged by subjective keyword terms. "Not Given" sheds light on aspects of these keywords.

For instance, photographs taken in a small town south of Lebanon organized under the term "disguise" are not only interesting, they reveal fascinating inner workings of the archivists. Bowen says heterosexual married couples were not allowed to be photographed together, so some couples would bring in a female companion to play "husband," and thus the photographs are archived under "disguise."

Images in the show also illustrate a mirroring of Western cinematography, and in some cases, a wry sense of humor from the subjects being photographed.

The exhibit also touches on the concept of translation, and what words mean and convey. One portion compares and contrasts how the archive’s keywords yield vastly different results when coupled with "man" or "woman."

The term "caress," when paired with "man," returns no photographs with men. But when paired with the word "woman," there are many returns. Similarly, the term "grimacing" when paired with "man," returns no photographs, but does so when paired with "woman."

"Not that there aren’t images of men grimacing," says Bowen. "They are just not categorized as grimacing."

Not Given: Talking Of and Around Photographs of Arab Women

Where: SF Camerawork, 657 Mission St., San Francisco

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closes May 26

Admission: $5 general; $2 seniors and students

Contact: (415) 512-2020 or www.sfcamerawork.org

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