The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction

The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction
Feeling ‘at home’ in a place embodies many things - a sense of belonging, familiarity, acceptance, independence, security and prospects.

When away, people sometimes use the expression ‘home from home’ to describe a place where one is as happy, relaxed, or comfortable as in one's own home. ‘Home’ is a word with a strong emotional resonance, beyond its literal meaning of ‘the place one lives’.

Home is represented by a combination of factors, affinity with one’s place of residence, by the proximity of family and friends, by personal and community identity, by how one lives and works, by shared values and experiences. Feeling ‘at home’ in a place is never a given, it is something that needs to be worked at. It requires us to adapt to new situations and surroundings, to contribute to society and to become involved in and engaged with the lives of those around us.

The Place I Call Home uses photography and lens-based media to explore the notion of home as it relates to contemporary experiences of the Arabic diaspora living in the UK and British people living in the Gulf. With the huge transformational changes happening in the Gulf region and UK – geopolitical, economic, social and cultural – the question of how we create places and spaces where we feel at home is a highly pertinent one. Real estate opportunity, the immense new wealth from oil, gas and mineral extraction, financial speculation, globalisation and technology are powerful drivers for trade and business growth. Equally, intercultural exchange, education, innovation and creativity offer momentum for positive societal change such as increased freedom and mobility, health and wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, and environmental sustainability. These factors make our cities and neighbourhoods more liveable, our communities more vibrant and harmonious, and our sense of belonging stronger.

The exhibition has three themes:

  • Place-Making: how planning, design, cultural, environmental and technological considerations define a region, city or neighbourhood
  • Interculturalism: promoting dialogue and interaction between cultures to challenge isolation and self-segregation within cultures
  • Citizenship: social responsibility, hospitality, inclusion, respect and tolerance

The exhibition content and accompanying public programme aim to stimulate an intercultural dialogue focusing on shared history and culture, a debate which is future facing and globally oriented showing how the world is changing and the new opportunities that presents for young people in the Gulf and UK. The ubiquity of visual culture in contemporary society also underpins the curatorial approach to this project. Forms of visual culture are now readily accessible through the exponential growth in digital and mobile telephone technologies. This creates an opportunity to engage a generation highly active on Instagram and other photography-based social media platforms in a conversation about what it means to live in an increasingly digital and globally connected world.

The exhibition is accompanied by a combination of physical activities and resources (e.g. talks and events, portfolio reviews, publications) and immersive online engagements (downloadable web resources, use of social media platforms for presentations, debates and creative participation). The print and online resources are published bilingually in English and Arabic.

After scoping visits to the region and an Open Call, a number of photographers and artists resident in the six GCC countries and UK have been commissioned or selected by the curator to respond to the exhibition themes. Their work reflects the shared stories of people from the Gulf living in the UK and British people living in the Gulf region, along with more personal insights on what constitutes ‘home’. Several artists take a poetic or conceptual approach rather than their work being purely documentary, exploring in various ways the three interweaving themes of the exhibition.

The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction
The exhibition’s context

There has been an Arab presence in the UK and British presence in the Arabian Peninsula for over 200 years.

In the 19th century, as a result of maritime trade London’s East End, Tyneside, Liverpool and Cardiff became centres of small Arab communities. In the 1950s, the British Arabic presence extended to industrial cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham and Sheffield. From the 1970s onwards, London became a major centre for Arab immigration, both short and long-term, offering good prospects for professional advancement, financial investment, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The opportunity to study and work also brought many Gulf nationals to other cities, and there are currently around 500,000 British-Arab UK residents. During the summer months, these numbers are boosted by around 1.5 million Arab visitors to the UK, mainly from the Gulf region.

For 150 years, Britain was a significant power in the Gulf, particularly on the Arabian side. In 1820, British mercantile and naval interests were consolidated by the establishment of ‘protectorates’ in Bahrain, Kuwait, Muscat, Doha, Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As oil deposits were discovered throughout the 1930s, British political agents attempted to ensure from Arab rulers that concessions were only granted to British-owned companies, and surplus oil revenues were invested in Britain. By the late 1950s, the British presence in the region was subject to growing criticism as Arab nationalist ideas grew in popularity. Although Kuwait became independent in 1961, Britain continued to dominate the Gulf for another decade until 1971 when other states on the Arab side of the Gulf received their independence. However, new economic opportunities and relative political stability have continued to make the Gulf region an attractive destination for UK companies and British nationals in search of prosperity, and a better quality of life than that they can afford back home.

The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction
Contemporary life in the Gulf

These six Gulf countries appear to have a promising future ahead of them. Since their independence, they have embarked upon a path of sustainable development, investing heavily in infrastructure, economic diversification, culture and tourism, education and social services, and therefore in their future.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have markedly high levels of foreign nationals as a proportion of the total population. 2018 figures[1] suggest that the total GCC population is circa 56m with almost 27m of those being nationals. The non-national population either studying or working represents a majority of 51.9%. It is reasonable to speculate that such high level of foreign nationals within the region may raise questions related to identity and a sense of belonging.

In Gulf States with a 50 to 80 % non-national population (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE), the economic and cultural contribution that migrants from the Indian Sub-continent, South East Asia, Africa and the rest of the Arab world have made is as significant a factor in the shaping their modern identity and progressive Westernisation.

In Saudi Arabia, the most populated country of the region, 60% of the residents are under 25. Bahrain and Oman’s under 25 population stands at about 50%. Young people have grown up connected to internet and are not only looking for rewarding employment in local or national economies, but also for their place in the global society. In the six Gulf States around 36 million people are regular users of social media platforms, and over 70% of social media users are aged between 14 and 30, 65% male and 35% female. The young people who make up this ‘smartphone generation’ are expert at using online tools to express themselves, and the spread of social media has fostered a growing political and civic awareness among Gulf citizens, who in many cases feel that they have a greater stake in their countries, with a new awareness of the contribution that they can and should make to national debate.

It is therefore somewhat of a paradox that at a time of unparalleled access to information and the exchange of ideas through the Internet, much of what is inculcated or reinforced by the UK media about life in the Gulf appears to be somewhat superficial or false ideas about identity. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Arab News and the Council for Arab-British Understanding in 2017[2] illustrated some worrying attitudes and misunderstandings of the Arab world and Arabs and Muslims in Britain. Of the 2142 British voters polled in the survey, 81% said they knew little or nothing about the region. While a third wanted to learn more, 41% said they would not visit the region.

The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction
The role that photography can play in promoting mutual understanding and respect between the Gulf and the UK

As well as colonial and ethnographic photography from the late 19th and early 20th Century, there are some notable examples of British photographers who produced a nuanced and vivid representation of life in the Arabian Peninsula from the 1930s to the 1970s. Alan Villiers was a naturally gifted sailor, photographer and writer, with a background in journalism and a deep interest in the economics of the dhow and pearl trades, and the social conditions of those engaged in them. Working with a simple Kodak camera, over many voyages across several decades, he took thousands of pictures of merchants, captains, seamen and their boats, and the souqs, houses and mosques along the shoreline. Harold and Violet Dickson documented the changes to people, their way of life, the towns and landscapes during Kuwait’s oil boom years from 1933 to 1976. Their legacy is celebrated by a collection of photographs in their home Beit Dickson, an archive of Kuwaiti-British relations over 70 years.

The revisiting of collections of archival photographs by contemporary artists is one way in which photography and memory can illuminate the recent past that informs the transformational present. Two important projects which involve found family and vernacular photographs re-presented as contemporary exhibits are Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory and Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999, presented at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi, and Ammar Al-Attar’s Reverse Moments, shown at Sharjah Art Foundation in December 2017. The former uses family photographs collected by students, and the latter images recovered from photo studios in the UAE during the 1960s.

An immediate reference point for this exhibition has been My Father’s House, a flagship photographic project for the British Council, which toured five GCC states in 2009-10 before being presented at the Brunei Gallery in London and John Moore’s University in Liverpool. The exhibition used architecture as a motif to explore the role and value of cultural heritage in defining cultural identity, aiming to stimulate debate around the role buildings play in shaping a nation’s culture. The exhibition formed the centrepiece of the project and included commissioned works by five emerging Middle Eastern artists and three UK photographers who produced photographic and audio-visual presentations to look at how the built environment reflects the people, community, society and the nations of the Middle East. Although the exhibition included some moving image alongside still photography, its content was primarily documentary in nature and none of the commissioned British photographers was resident in the Gulf region.

The Place I Call Home - Curatorial Introduction
Defining the scope of The Place I Call Home

To inform the detailed exhibition brief, and to gain deeper understanding of the cultural landscape in the Gulf and that of the Arabic diaspora in the UK, throughout 2018 and early 2019 the curator undertook a series of scoping visits to the region. These involved extensive travel and meetings with artists and photographers, cultural organisations, photographic groups, universities, museums and galleries. The visits introduced him to inspiring artwork, many impressive exhibition venues and well resourced education spaces. The meetings with artists, curators, educators and photographers were especially illuminating in terms of building a picture of the contemporary visual arts and photography scene in the Gulf, and to gain insight into the hopes, fears and aspirations of the young people who live there or plan to travel to the UK to work or study.

In a region like the Gulf with so many ‘global’ and transient citizens the theme of ‘home’ speaks to both collective and individual experience. The speed of change in the Gulf has created new perspectives that are sometimes highly local and specific, at other times about sharing human experiences that transcend borders.

The Place I Call Home explores this process of change and its impact on people. It prompts questions and conversations on ‘home’ as a concept and not just a physical place. Central to this is revealing how photography is being used in the UK and the Gulf to capture and make sense of these societal shifts in order to build understanding around the strong and rich cultural history that informs the identity of the contemporary Arab World.

Photography is arguably one of the most democratic art forms (particularly with the exponential growth in digital and mobile phone technologies), and a key objective is to engage more young people through the exhibition and accompanying activities and events and to start new conversations through photography. The project’s content reflects a variety of lens-based media - from smartphone imaging through to analogue photography and video. The exhibition is a mixed media one, reflecting a diverse range of photographic practices and differing approaches to creative storytelling.

We want to inspire young people, and through the exhibition and its outreach and engagement activities, encourage them to pick up a camera and use photography as their tool so they can share their own stories and experiences. We want to show the value of creative art forms in people’s lives, the role they can play in society’s understanding of itself - and how this impact should be shared and discussed.

Above all, the project is an opportunity for UK and Gulf audiences to look afresh at the richness, diversity and dynamism of the region, and to highlight the important role that the arts play in stimulating intercultural dialogue and to building understanding and trust through the mutual exchange of knowledge, experiences and ideas.

David Drake,

Curator, The Place I Call Home

August 2019