Adam Rouhana’s affecting portraits of Palestinian life

Rouhana has managed to populate our Instagram feeds with delicate images of harmonious Palestinian life whilst including clues of the occupation within his frame. By simply capturing what he saw, as opposed to forcing a pre-existing narrative, or fashioning a fictitious alternative, the early-career photographer also caught the eyes of curator and writer Amah-Rose Abrams. I immediately connected with the work as do so many people who have discovered it and follow him online,” she explains.

Abrams, who began her work with Rouhana after their meeting at the 15th Sharjah Biennial, explains that the exhibition is “just one narrative strand” from the huge and on-going Before Freedom series. The exhibition displays Rouhana’s most iconic (a less crude way of saying ‘viral’) images alongside less recognisable photographs. The scene painted by Abrams’ curation along the walls of the first floor of the Frieze gallery is one of quiet resilience, hope in the mundane, and sensory delights.

“To show my photos of Palestine now, is to say: we are here, in Palestine – and we’re not going anywhere” – Adam Rouhana

The first image upon entry, one of children playing in water, immediately elicits calm, innocence and childlike wonder whilst almost manifesting the sounds of splashing water so reminiscent of childhood summers. In this way, both Abrams and Rouhana show us that our experiences in life are universal, a thread which is carried throughout the exhibition. One of the only things unique about Palestinian life is the external forces which wish to suppress it. “The history, language, and religious plurality of Palestine have materialised over millenia congealing into a thick social fabric that is textured with long-standing traditions, knowledge and social-relations that Israel has not been successful in erasing,” says Rouhana. “To show my photos of Palestine now, is to say: we are here, in Palestine – and we’re not going anywhere. Palestinian life trumps Zionism’s attempt at Palestinian death.”

Another image, one of the last displayed in the sequence, shows an Arabian horse in an extended and strained lunging motion, illuminated and almost glowing with the flash of Rouhana’s camera. His body is contorted by the effort of trying to break away, his eyes are wild and and his nostrils are flared. The image is staggeringly large-scale, taking up almost the entire wall. The young stallion is nearly life-size and he is almost jumping from the wall towards us, accentuated by one of his hooves hovering over the bottom border of the image. He is refusing to be restricted by either his reigns or the frame which contains the composition. And so, instead of being a sorrow symbol of confinement, the horse could easily be a radically hopeful allegory for the precise moment before the chains are broken; before freedom.

Abrams thinks the larger scale of the images relay “the beauty of film photography”. “A Lion’s Watermelon” (2022), which is perhaps Rouhana’s most well-known image, shows a young Assad indulging in a watermelon – the universal symbol of Palestinian resistance. Abrams tells me that the image was always intended to be almost life-sized, “as though the viewer was meeting him”. Because these ‘meetings’ are repeated throughout the show, the overall feeling is one of intimacy, harking back to Rouhana’s universal and timeless lens. “It was important to take the work, which is shot on film, out of the online context and place it firmly in a physical art context,” says Abrams, since his images have thus far only been seen and shared repeatedly in the digital world.

Though Before Freedom opens against the backdrop of the continued genocide in Gaza, the work extends far beyond the zeitgeist. It is a testament to the 75-year ongoing resilience of the Palestinian spirit against land theft, colonial brutality and cultural erasure. “Palestine was, […] before Israel’s occupation, an open-border, culturally-pluralist, religiously diverse, fertile homeland – our homeland,” Rouhana reminds us. With the world’s eyes on Palestine, it should be no surprise that Rouhana’s work has struck the hearts of so many and attracted high-profile visitors such as Hans Ulrich Obrist. The show also evidences the photographer’s growing narrative vision. Thus, we might want to echo Abrams when she says,I think [Rouhana] will continue to go from strength to strength as an artist and I look forward to seeing him do so.”

Before Freedom: Adam Rouhana is showing at Frieze No. 9 Cork Street until May 18, 2024. Rouhana’s upcoming show Before Freedom Pt. 2, curated by Lobna Sana, will open at TJ Boulting on May 30 and run till June 22 with unseen work from the artist’s ongoing series.

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital

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