Portfolio gallery

The Last Tribes of Papua New Guinea

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The art scene is waking up and, to give it a fresh injection of new blood, Portfolio Gallery opens its doors this week – Al Quoz’s first photography-only gallery. Owner Emmanuel Catteau is looking, with this new space, to ‘democratise’ the art scene a little. ‘The galleries in Dubai are quite elitist,’ says Catteau, ‘whether it’s down to the atmosphere or the price of the goods themselves. I want a space that is affable, with normal prints at around Dhs1,000 each. Interesting photographers, close to the people they are shooting, at affordable prices.’

Catteau has been active in Dubai for years in the form of printing kiosks at several of the city’s malls, along with T-Shirt Factory, emblazoning T-shirts with designs. The new Al Quoz space includes a printing station for the city’s photographers, a selection of photography books and, surprisingly, a pool table. ‘I want people to come in and be free to spend time with us,’ says Catteau.

A photographer himself, Portfolio launches with a selection of Catteau’s own work in Papua New Guinea. The Frenchman headed to Mount Hegan in the country’s interior for its annual festival, set up and designed by missionaries nearly a century ago to promote peace between the region’s warring tribes. ‘It’s in the highlands of Papua, and brings all the tribes together from all over the country who compete with one another through dancing. They are still living like they’re in prehistoric times in much of the country’s mountainous areas.

But modern life is coming. Soon they’ll be in jeans and drinking Coke.’ The country’s interior, Catteau explains, has managed to resist the tide of modernisation so far. ‘I photographed 35 different tribes for this, each represented by their distinctive makeup and style of dress. It’s a black and white series of portraits. I tried to make old school portraits, like from the beginning of the 20th century or even before, so I was carrying my white bedsheet in the jungle.’

From what we’ve seen, the collection looks interesting. While these are still black and white portraits (and err, we might add, very much on the side of decorative rather than any sort of reportage), Catteau has highlighted a single panel of colour within each and saturated that section. A dash of orange paint seems to glow from the otherwise monochrome face of one Papuan tribesman. ‘It’s really about the faces, the way they are painting their faces is so strong and so different. It was more aesthetic than anything sociological,’ says Catteau.

Portfolio’s space is part of the same complex, Al Serkel Avenue, as Ayyam Gallery. Whether we’ll see Dubai’s art scene in there shooting pool, however, remains to be seen. Until October 31.

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