Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Photographer Who Captured Life in Diaspora, Dies at 60

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, a widely praised Kuwaiti-born photographer whose work dealt with displacement in the Middle East, died at 60 in New York on Saturday, according to the Third Line, the Dubai gallery that represents him. A representative for the gallery said a cause of death had not yet been confirmed.

Al-Ghoussein’s photography had garnered acclaim, both within the United Arab Emirates, where he was based, and abroad, where his work figured in international biennials. Much of his work drew on his experience of a life lived in flux, with various series meditating on the landscape of Abu Dhabi, his position as an artist of Palestinian descent, and the construction of the not-yet-complete Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

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He was at the top of his career when he died, having recently been nominated for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Richard Mille Prize, a new art award. Al-Ghoussein had recently been named director of New York University’s M.F.A. program in Abu Dhabi.

“Odysseus,” Al-Ghoussein’s most well-known series, was begun in 2015, and involves the artist attempting to photograph all 215 of Abu Dhabi’s islands. Because of the ambitious scope and because visits to most islands involve going through bureaucratic red tape, Al-Ghoussein had only been successful in going to several dozen of them by the time a show of these works was mounted at the Third Line in 2021.

In many pictures, Al-Ghoussein situated himself as an unmoored figure within a vacant landscape—seated blankly at the top of a slide in one photograph, staring outward at an arid expanse in another. Some other photographs in the series simply envisioned open expanses of water and sandy desert-like areas.

“My goal is not to be in all of the photographs, because sometimes I feel like the image does not need me in there, and I want to avoid the superficial reading of ‘Where’s Waldo?,’” Al-Ghoussein told the Louvre Abu Dhabi last year. “It is myself in a space, in my relation to a space, how I affect the space and how the space affects me.”

Tarek Al-Ghoussein was born in Kuwait in 1962 to parents who were of Palestinian descent. He lived an itinerant childhood, spending time in the United States, Morocco, and Japan. He attended New York University as an undergraduate, receiving a degree in photography, and later received an M.A. in photography from the University of New Mexico.

For a period, Al-Ghoussein worked as a photojournalist before becoming an art professor and taking a conceptual turn with his works. Some of the earliest pictures to bring Al-Ghoussein attention were self-portraits that have been termed “performance photographs” because they involved taking on various identities for his camera.

The most famous of these works, Self-Portrait 5 (2003), features the artist wearing a keffiyeh, a scarf that has acted as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and walking near an airplane. Shot around two years after the September 11 attacks, it was intended to evoke images of Middle Eastern terrorists seen in the West while also deliberately subverting them.

“No matter how I look at this work, I immediately link his ‘performance photographs’ to Palestinian visual discourse on exile, displacement, the conflict, and their diverse representations in art,” curator Jack Persekian once wrote in Bidoun. “As a Palestinian myself, I fear that my reading is contested by my unconscious resistance as well as my emotional insistence on reading in the primordial way. Ghoussein’s identity is constituted, nevertheless, on fragmented grounds, indicating that it cannot simply be re-included into that from which it has previously been excluded.”

Periodically, Al-Ghoussein’s work put him in danger. For one self-portrait, he shot himself standing on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and looking in the direction of Palestine. He recalled that local police asked him about why he was wearing a keffiyeh, and said, in an interview with Afterimage, that the event “just made me realize how charged that scarf was. And how much, even in the Middle East, it has become almost a symbol of terrorism.”

Works such as these had made Al-Ghoussein a core figure within the art scene of the U.A.E. He appeared in the 2003 and 2005 editions of the Sharjah Biennial, showed at the first-ever U.A.E. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, and represented Kuwait at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The Sharjah Art Museum hosted a retrospective of his work in 2010.

Al-Ghoussein’s passing, NYU’s Abu Dhabi Art Center wrote on Twitter, is “a huge loss for the arts in the UAE, across the region and the world, but also personally for so many individuals at NYUAD.”

Source: artnews.com

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