The Place I Call Home, Summerhall, Edinburgh ****
Oscar Marzaroli, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow ****
Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics and other works, GoMA, Glasgow ***
What does “home” mean in 2020, in a world which grows ever more globalised? There are few places as multicultural as the Gulf states (in Oman, for example, 45 per cent of the population are ex-pats) so this is a potent theme for an exhibition bringing together the work of photographers from the Gulf and the UK. Commissioned by the British Council and curated by David Drake of Ffotogallery, Wales, The Place I Call Home is midway through a 10-venue international tour.
The 15 artists featured here (the show changes slightly on each iteration) are an eclectic group, but all work with a deep knowledge and consideration of their subjects. Scot Gillian Robertson has photographed ex-pats in Ras Al Khaimah where she lived for several years, while Hussain Almosavi and Mariam Alarab have carried out a similar project with Bahrainis living in the UK.
Josh Adam Jones and Richard Allenby-Pratt have both spent extended time in the Gulf, and their work draws on that experience. Ben Soedira, a recent graduate in Fine Art Photography from Glasgow School of Art, grew up in Dubai, and his images ponder the questions of that place –its man-made nature and imported resources – while being infused with the colours, textures and tones of the desert.
Several of the artists are concerned with what has been lost in the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of the Gulf states since the discovery of oil. Mashael Alhejazi goes looking for a more authentic culture in one of the oldest residential neighbourhoods in Qatar and makes hand-printed cynaotypes, while Zahed Sultan looks for something similar in his film investigation into the folk music of Oman.
Sara Al Obaidly captures urbanisation in progress on the outskirts of Doha, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial cities, while Mohammed Al-Kouh’s work explores the legacy of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, particularly focusing on the Qasr AlSalam palace, damaged in the invasion, making hand-coloured prints of its derelict splendour.
Eman Ali, who grew up in Oman, uses found photographs from the country’s English newsletter in the 1970s and 80s and recontextualises them to ask questions about its future, while Abi Green, a Brit living in Qatar, photographs landscapes fragmented and disrupted by a house-shaped mirror. Her arresting series, Mysteries of the Horizon, use the idea of the desert mirage to make a potent reflection (no pun intended) on the fragile idea of home.
What does “home” mean in 2020? Perhaps the question is unanswerable. But, in bringing together such an extensive body of work of this quality, the show gifts us with a nuanced picture of life in the Arab Gulf states, and a deeper understanding of the ways in which they touch many people here in the UK.
In the Glasgow of the 1950s and 1960s, Oscar Marzaroli photographed the city many people recognise as home. From the 1950s until his death in 1988 – but most vividly in those first two decades – the Italian-born photographer documented the city, creating iconic images such as The Castlemilk Lads, The Golden-Haired Lass and the rainy cityscape which was the cover of Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown. It has been 20 years since there was a major public exhibition of his work, yet these images are lodged firmly in our consciousness.
Marzaroli’s lens helped define Glasgow’s memory of itself, a city of tenements and poverty, heavy industry and indomitable human spirit. Although he was photographing the city at a time of great change – slum clearance, road-building, the death of industries – his focus comes back again and again to the world that was vanishing. One feels he knew he was making memories, even as he released the shutter.
There is plenty of proof here, if any is needed, of Marzaroli’s skills as a photographer – his use of light, his compositions, his instinct for the moment when the magic happens. During the cup final at Hampden in 1963, for example, he captures the moment when the Celtic crowd holds its breath and stares with rapt attention at something just beyond the photographer’s head, a second of complete stillness anticipating glory or defeat.
While the use of large format blow-ups as backdrops in the show is confusing to the eye, the exhibition does a good job at suggesting the wider range of Marzaroli’s work: his studies of industry, his left-wing politics, his friendship with Joan Eardley. There are also verbal hints at a significant body of film made with Ogam Films, the production company he co-founded. As his archive passes into the care of Glasgow Caledonian University to be catalogued and digitised, one must hope that future exhibitions will enlighten us further about the diversity of his work.
While Marzaroli’s work has an elegiac tone, as if he documented a world he knew to be passing, Hal Fischer’s photographs made in the gay neighbourhoods of San Francisco in the 1970s, are exuberant, bombastic, as if the artist were depicting a world he thought would never end. At that point, the city’s Castro neighbourhood was one of the largest gay enclaves in the world, an out-and-proud community while in many states homosexuality was still illegal.
His Gay Semiotics series from 1977 is a playful guide to the scene: here are the types (your basic gay guy, the jock, the leather-dresser, the hippie); this is how they dress; this is a bondage contraption; this is dominance, this is submission. Boy-Friends documents some of his own liaisons – real or fictional, we aren’t told – while 18th near Castro St chronicles 24 hours in the life of a bus stop bench at the heart of the neighbourhood, with its shifting population of commuters, sun-bathers, drunks and cruisers.
In these series, which have been purchased for Glasgow Museums, Fischer has documented what turned out to be an all too fleeting moment: the exuberance of Castro’s gay community would be broken by Aids, the battle for rights and recognition which felt as if it had been won would turn out to require further fighting. But Fischer’s work captures that triumphant period when the textbook for gay liberation was still being written, and a new generation was finding a place to call home.
The Place I Call Home until 8 March; Oscar Marzaroli until 15 March; Hal Fischer until 31 May