Art reviews: Shadi Habib Allah | Petra Bauer and SCOT-PEP | Ambit: Photographies from Scotland

Kieran Dodds' picture for the Ambit exhibition at Stills shows worshippers dressed in their Sunday robes in Zhara church forest, Ethiopia
Kieran Dodds' picture for the Ambit exhibition at Stills shows worshippers dressed in their Sunday robes in Zhara church forest, Ethiopia
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Stills and Street Level join forces for Ambit – a wide-ranging showcase of work by emerging photographers based in Scotland

Shadi Habib Allah: Free Rein, CCA, Glasgow ***

Petra Bauer and SCOT-PEP: Workers, Collective, Edinburgh ***

Ambit: Photographies from Scotland, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow and Stills, Edinburgh ****

I am always heartened by art that concerns itself with social issues, which sets out to say something about the world, perhaps even with a mind to change things. However, it can be such a relief to see art which engages with more than just other art, one can forget how hard it is to do this well.

Shadi Habib Allah’s work at CCA is concerned with the small local shops in Miami’s Liberty City, where he used to live, which are struggling for survival and resorting to an alternative economy of exchanging food stamps for cash at prohibitive rates. It’s an issue (with or without food stamps) which is affecting independent shops the world over, and one well worth exploring.

Part of his expression of it is a 750 square foot vinyl floor from a former corner shop in Miami which has been shipped into the gallery and titled 70 Days Behind Inventory. A further work, Measured Volumes, arranges the plastic wrapping used for multipacks of bottles aiming, perhaps, to suggest a shop no longer dealing in real goods.

The floor, though awkwardly installed behind a video screen, is evocative of its past life, but it doesn’t explain the problem – we need the accompanying text for that. An audio extract from the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986 on the subject of welfare highlights how policies make people turn on each other, the “deserving poor” on the “undeserving.” But these disparate elements feel lifeless; there is no artistic transformation. Being placed in an art gallery is not always enough to make something art.

Habib Allah’s 2010 film, The King and the Jester, is a different kind of work. Made in an auto repair shop in Liberty City, the 30-minute film looks like pure fly-on-the-wall observation of the banter of employees and customers, the odd hierarchies and power relationships which develop in the workplace. However, it is partly scripted, a sophisticated piece of work developed during a long period of engagement with the men in the car yard, very likely ending up with something both odder and more “real” than fly-on-the-wall cameras would have captured.

There is a similar intent in Workers! – the film made by Swedish artist Petra Bauer for Collective in collaboration with SCOT-PEP, a charity led by sex workers which advocates for the rights of those in the sex industry. The film is the product of a three-year engagement period, and credits SCOT-PEP as co-creators. The film focuses on a day when the charity took over the STUC building in Glasgow and hosted its own convention: we see them putting up pictures, laying out biscuits on plates, ironing banners. While protecting their anonymity (at least until the final scene) Bauer lets us eavesdrop on their conversations, mostly earnest discussions about their campaigns.

The group is clearly working hard to align itself with trades union traditions – right down to the retro-style banner created in collaboration with the artist Fiona Jardine (“Sex workers – unite!”) – to identify itself as a union, and sex work as work. There is a debate to be had about this, but the film either ignores this or pretends it has already happened. By making her subject the co-author of her work, Bauer has given up her own authorial distance, her right to ask challenging questions.

The artist and her team have created a rather beautiful, quietly contemplative film while avoiding, with almost comical delicacy, any reference to what it is these workers do. The arrangements of biscuits, the right-on conversations, certainly challenge our perceptions of sex workers, but also leave us rather disengaged, while the elephant in the room is trumpeting loudly in our ears.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s two dedicated photography galleries join forces again for Ambit, the annual showcase of emerging Scotland-based photographers. The 11 artists shown across the two spaces are a very international group, wide-ranging in their subject matter, geographical locations and approaches to photography.

Kieran Dodds (Stills) fulfils one traditional function of photography by showing us an aspect of the world we (very likely) didn’t know about: Tewahedo Orthodox churches in Ethiopia, and the oases of trees they have around them, in an otherwise critically deforested land. Edyta Majewska (Street Level) describes her own journey through applying for British citizenship, using a wide range of photographic media, from polaroids to printed wallpaper, to explore her feelings.

Iain Sarjeant (Street Level) documents Scotland with a eye for the unexpected, the incongruous and the quirky: a squint lamppost cutting across a building, hay bales wrapped in bright pink plastic. Alex Hall (Stills) finds a kind of elegiac beauty in a scrapyard, each damaged car evidence of a trauma. Mhairi Law (Stills), has shot a sequence of images in low light of the marker off the coast of the Isle of Lewis where the HMY Iolaire sank in 1919 with the loss of over 200 lives.

Some of the other artists prioritise exploring the processes of photography for conceptual reasons, or use photographic elements as part of a wider fine art practice, but these five artists all tell a story. It’s not that photography can’t be conceptual, or explore what is beneath the surface, but what comes across, at least from this exhibition, is that the medium is ideally suited to telling us things about the world, or inviting us to see everyday things in new ways. - Susan Mansfield

Shadi Habib Allan until 2 June; Petra Bauer and SCOT-PEP until 30 June; Ambit is at Stills until 2 June, and at Street Level Photoworks until 23 June.