Tarek Al Ghoussein has headed into the backlands of the UAE for his latest series of photographs
The dust has turned the sky brown and, beneath this menacing sheet, Tarek Al Ghoussein wanders along a lonely highway. The sands shift across the asphalt. We can only just see the artist as his black outline mingles with the dust. The image, from his latest series of photographs, begs the question: has he stopped half-way up the road or is he walking slowly away from us?
Al Ghoussein has undertaken a continuing project exploring his own identity in his photographs. With the Self Portraits series back in 2007, the artist, a Palestinian-Kuwaiti who has never lived in Palestine, reflected on the Western conception of Palestinians following September 11. Wrapping his head in Arab headdress in a manner that had become synonymous with terrorism in the occupied territories, Al Ghoussein photographed himself stood among bleak wreckage, in front of grounded aeroplanes and the refuse of industry.
In recent works Al Ghoussein has removed the scarf. The images are colder, less ignited by frustration ‘One reason that I removed the scarf is that it was too directly linked to Palestine,’ he explains. ‘You could say that that first series was looking at the way that the West perceived Palestinians: what constitutes identity, but what shapes identity also – and for me that’s changing constantly.’
In the subsequent A, B and C-Series works that Al Ghoussein produced, he moved this concept into even more abstract territory, eventually, in the C-Series, photographing himself getting steadily more enveloped in a blue tarpaulin. ‘The C-series was a lot more transient. It was very much about temporary landscapes and structures.’ Al Ghoussein has taken that temporality slightly further in the D-Series, displayed at The Third Line. Dragging a mass of green tarpaulin to indistinguishable parts of the UAE’s desert, the artist has built strange, bulging constructions. Post-industry, post humanity, the images hum with a unique desolation. The tarpaulin stands like a solid swathe of colour amid the grey.
In one shot, we see Al Ghoussein staring at the form, inches from its protruding tip. In the next he lies in its shadow and stares up as if the thing is bearing down on him. It’s hard to unpick what he’s doing but, in the light of his previous works, these are far more conceptual in their approach. ‘I want each series to stand alone,’ he tells us. ‘I see them all as dealing with various aspects of identity in one sense or another, but this series is a lot less political. Directly political, anyway.’
He suggests that the D-Series has been a far more spatial project than anything he’s done so far. ‘It’s about looking at a space, how one relates to a space and how that space defines a person too,’ he explains. It also speaks volumes about how our perceptions are shaped by these spatial relationships: in one image the bulge of tarpaulin that pushes towards Al Ghoussein appears almost accusatory, as if it’s pointing to the artist. This is conveyed through a facial expression. It’s more a question of how we make sense of his proximity to this strange, inert object.
There’s a resonance with Palestine in this that cannot be overlooked. So much of Al Ghoussein’s work has dealt with his Palestinian heritage, trying to make sense of what is happening there and interpreting outsider perceptions, as a physical outsider himself. With a state that has become defined, in the minds of many, by its relation to a construct (namely Israel) perhaps Al Ghoussein is commenting on this in the D-Series. Palestine is understood by its proximity to Israel, and vice-versa, and perhaps this is even more pronounced for a Palestinian, like Al Ghoussein, who has never lived within the country’s borders. Even the matter of borders, always a temporary construct, appears to surface in these works.
He refers to one of the images, in which he’s stood in front of a green fence and behind him is a heap of ripped tarpaulin. The work appears constructed on very severe and definite planes. ‘This is a work I did just a month ago; it’s about pulling one layer back and finding there’s always another layer in front of me too,’ says Al Ghoussein. ‘It’s about constant questioning, dealing with something and putting it behind you also.’