Houston’s ‘Platform for Art and Ideas’ focuses on the Middle East.
by Barrett White
Every two years, Houston hosts the international FotoFest, one of the world’s preeminent photo festivals. In anticipation of the spring event, FotoFest chooses a theme for the exhibits. Previous themes have included water, violence, and technology, and this year’s FotoFest is focusing its attention on the Arab world with the theme “View from Inside: Contemporary Arab Video, Photography and Mixed Media Art.”
Commenting on the need for fresh images of daily life in the Middle East, FotoFest co-founder and artistic director Wendy Watriss stated, “Even in magazines like The New Yorker, you rarely see a straight human interest story that goes beyond the headlines.”
Among the LGBTQ artists participating in the 2014 FotoFest are Kirsten Rice and photographer George Awde. In addition, Mariette Pathy Allen is known worldwide for her exhibits on transgender people and their lives.
George Awde: His Passing Cover
O’Kane Gallery at University of Houston-Downtown (1 Main St.)
Through April 17
George Awde: His Passing Cover explores the Arab male coming-of-age experience, and “emphasizes the Arab male body to explore traditional ideas of masculinity and notions of family.” That brief gallery description does not do justice to the striking images captured by Lebanese-American George Awde during his travels in Lebanon.
Exhibited internationally, Awde’s artwork candidly depicts deep pathos, be it through physical pain or the yearning of an absent subject. The ability to evoke feeling even when no physical body is present is something Awde excels at.
Often poetic reflections on community, Awde’s photography is sublime. He has
had many role models and mentors, and his work puts an emphasis on details such as shadowing and light to create his visions of intimacy.
“I think this ‘emotional’ sense emerges from a place of intimacy between myself and the people and places I photograph.” Awde says. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed—I’m juggling a lot of projects that are really exciting to me.”
Awde is not only a photographer, but also an educator who majored in painting at the Massachusetts College of Art. He went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from Yale University in 2009.
Atelier Jacquinet (913 McKee St.)
Through April 27
Hailing from Houston, Los Angeles, and Cape Town, South Africa, Kirsten Rice curates this exhibit that showcases the work of 20 photographers who all resided in Houston before dispersing around the world. Rice also presents a few of her own photographs as part of the exhibit.
With images that contrast bold colors with tender moments of love, life, and sexuality, her work conveys a sense of freedom and whimsy. Influenced by the work of Garry Winogrand, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cathy Opie, Andreas Gursky and others, Rice’s photographs seem effortless. In reality, keeping a camera at the ready and being prepared to capture art is a constant challenge.
“There are so many things that we overlook during our busy lives. When I take my camera out, it is all about the freedom of the moment.” Rice explains that a spontaneous shot is often better than the ones she had originally planned. “I was exploring [a small Cape Town beach] because I was interested in mountains, colored shacks, and beach culture. As I was taking pictures of the shacks, these three boys started showing off for me by each flipping off the edge of the barrier. I loved this image because it combined the aesthetic beauty of the mountains and colored shakes with the energy and movement of the boys.”
Outside of street and landscape art, Rice focuses on gender and sexuality. “I use it as a tool for understanding my own identity and its relationship with society and culture. I question the norms that have been laid upon me and affect the representation of self. I also use my photography to observe all of these relationships as well as the reactions/interactions that occur when the norm has been disturbed.”
Some of Rice’s favorite images are Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Thomas,” a stunning exploration of gender, race, and sexuality.
Rice also has a recent video project to her credit. “In my latest video piece, I address the relationship between clothing and self-expression; how clothing can be an outward expression of identity and the perceived identity projected by others in response. I approached a number of individuals and asked them what they would have me wear if they had the opportunity to dress me for the day. In the video, I recreated the outfits and included quotes of their descriptions and reasoning. ‘A red dress. It is cute.’ ‘Leather. Lots of leather, and bondage. It is hot.’ ‘Nothing. No explanation needed.’ The piece demonstrated how clothing is gendered, how it is a reflection of personal taste, and how it is sexualized. I intend to continue to propagate a discourse on modern masculinity and femininity, social expectations, and cultural norms that contribute to gender-based inequality and repression. Art has been my outlet for calling attention to issues that many face every day.”
As many LGBTQ people are aware, fluidity of gender is nothing out of the ordinary. But for those not affiliated with our community, confusion about gender issues often leads to intolerance. Enter Mariette Pathy Allen, known worldwide for her work highlighting and supporting the transgender community (and featured on the cover of OutSmart in 2000). Allen’s work is showcased in FotoFest’s exhibit Discoveries of the Meeting Place, which highlights 11 international artists who were selected from FotoFest’s acclaimed International Portfolio Review for Artists. Alongside Discoveries is the release of Allen’s book, TransCuba, which is a bilingual photo-driven hardback with an introduction by Allen Frame, an essay by Wendy Watriss, and a preface by Mariela Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s daughter.
Allen’s connection to the transgender community as a photographer, writer, advocate, ally, and friend makes an important statement about the need to respect a culture that is oftentimes misunderstood by mainstream cisgender society. Allen seeks to propel the transgender community into the light while educating society and bringing about the “de-freakification of gender-variant people,” as she puts it. Although her work highlights the lives of transgender people in the United States and Cuba, she has travelled the globe and supported transgender communities in Mexico and French Polynesia, with Myanmar and Thailand on the horizon. Allen’s work presses you to open your mind as you experience the candid, sometimes strained, yet beautiful moments in these people’s lives.
Discoveries of the Meeting Place is a part of this year’s FotoFest for the duration of the festival.
For more information on these and other free exhibits, visit fotofest.org.