The Rencontres d’Arles 2015 were widely decried for their lack of women photographers: only one woman actually had a solo exhibition last year (not taking into account the Discovery Award). What’s worse, it wasn’t very good, and very stereotypically “feminine” in its theme and title, the “Coup de foudre”, i.e. [love] “At First Sight”. The message seems to have gone through to the organizers for this year’s edition –there’s even a Madame Figaro Photo Award (after the woman weekly supplement to the daily Le Figaro) for one woman photographer’s work on display in Arles.
So, an effort has been made, at least quantitatively; in terms of quality, the exhibitions are moderately interesting (as it is the case overall, in my eyes), and only one stands out from the pack, Laia Abril’s. Precisely, her exhibition has garnered widespread acclaim, and won the Award by a landslide (as I have been told).
Let’s start with the less convincing propositions (even if my selection differs slightly from the Madame Figaro shortlist): Katarina Jebb’s scans, at the Réattu Museum, do not seem to be much more than gimmicky technical feats. Her most interesting piece is an ashtray printed with her scan of Balthus’ ashtray, produced as a multiple that retails for 250€ in the gift shop –which says a lot. Across the street, Alinka Echeverría (winner of the 2015 BMW residency at the Nicéphore Niépce Museum) has contributed one and only one artwork, a vase decorated with a picture of Serena Williams. All the analyses and commentaries in the world (including an uncredited quote from Vilém Flusser) can only take this so far –and it does not go much farther than the aforementioned Coup de foudre by last year’s BMW protégée. As for Maud Sulter’s collages, I understood very little of it.
I was much more interested in Lanquing Zhu’s work on insularity (despite the sub-par scenography), and Clémentine Roche’s stalking of a mysterious character (in the exhibition devoted to the 2016 three “best” ENSP graduates). Stéphanie Solinas’ exhibition on a metallic hall –which was built as the “Great Palace” to Marseille’s Colonial Exposition, and was then demoted to a storehouse for rice in Arles. There are lots of documents, collected by an array of contributors and fellow scholars, presented in a rather dry linear scenography, plus a lengthy video. With some further investigations, the hall could have prompted multiple readings and outlooks –architectural, postcolonial, social or even botanical… Precisely, this documentary work lacks what set apart Stéphanie Solinas’ previous projects: the obsession of categories, the will to catalogue everything to the point of absurdity. These traits contributed to the quality of her “Dominique Lambert” series (shown in Nîmes as part of the Rencontres extended program “Grand Arles Express”) or her accumulation of Père-Lachaise graves; they are unfortunately missing or very much muted in this recent “Method of Loci”.
It is no surprise then that the Award went to Laia Abril, whose political, passionate, radical and unsettling work stood out from the rest, tackling on abortion and the difficulties women face everyday in countries where it is still illegal or unpractical. With portraits of women telling their stories, and documents from the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, it makes for an exceptionally powerful exhibition, not only in terms of content, but also because of this young photographer’s frontal, direct, uncompromising style, and her interdisciplinary approach, beyond the limits of photography. The only misstep for me would be the sculpture made of hangers in the middle of the room: it is too anecdotal and not subtle enough, it adds nothing, far from it.
There is another really talented woman photographer in Arles, Zanele Muholi, but she is featured in LUMA’s exhibition, outside of the official Rencontres –this is probably why was not included in the Madame Figaro shortlist. The South African photographer is known for her work on her country’s LGBT community; she is also a committed LGBT activist and has suffered from homophobia, to the extent that some of her archives were deliberately destroyed by criminals. In Arles, Muholi is presenting self-portraits with peculiar hairstyles, sometimes including domestic appliances, clothespin or scouring pads. Mocking Western fascination with African hairdos, she plays with stereotypes, exaggerating them, posing proudly, her skin blackened; she references her mother, Bester, and all the black servants under apartheid, as well as the Polaroid ID photos used for “dompasses”. I think it is the first time her work goes beyond the strictly LGBT perspective and becomes more universal –with a very powerful result. The title of the exhibition, “Somnyama Ngonyama” is Zulu for “Hello Black Lionness”; the exhibition leaflet is a must-read.
This year, with Laia Abril’s and Zanele Muholi’s exhibitions, Arles is featuring feminist photography projects, strong with pride and self-empowerment, and that should leave few people indifferent. Bravo!
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: July 14, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère