The RE Project

Noor Abuarafeh: How To Resist Forgetfulness

On Noor Abuarafeh at Behna El Wekalah in Alexandria

Written by Nadia Mounier. Published on 15 January 2022

I’m writing this text on the way from Cairo to Alexandria to attend the solo exhibition titled ‘On Colors and Objects – Withdrawn from the Picture’ by Noor Abuarafeh, curated by Ali Hussein Al Adawy in 2021 at the Behna El Wekalah art space in Alexandria. While waiting for the train at Cairo’s historic railway station, I visited the ‘Railway Museum of Egypt’ located inside the station. I had ten minutes before the train arrived, a perfectly convenient amount of time to see the structure and layout of the museum, and to feed a recently developed interest of mine in how museums are organized and how collectibles are displayed.

Questioning the Status Quo

I quickly started my tour through the corridors of the oval-shaped museum space, followed by a security guy who walked quickly behind me, making sure that I did not take any pictures with my mobile. I went through an entire corridor of hanging frames with dim lighting, with pictures of people who looked very small in size next to trains and planes. They were all frames for documents and photos depicting moments in the history of transportation in Egypt and around the world. With each frame I passed by, I could watch my image reflected on the glass exteriors, thinking of the state, represented in institutions, as the first controller of the archival materials related to collective memory. How can we search for alternative archives that tell us what we missed and lost with time? How can photography stand on the side of those people in the frames and, at the same time, stand against them? I wonder if one day we can take another look at archives in a way that can regain an interest that was lost and obliterated by the everyday flow of image production.

I quickly left the museum amid all these questions to catch the train, while thinking that the museum, as a place of documentation, represents people but can separate them ridiculously from their identity; it objectifies them as part of statistics and records, without any human contact. I took the train to Alexandria and arrived at the Behna El Wekalah art space to see the exhibition of Noor Abuarafeh.

Meeting Noor

Behna El Wekalah is located in the historic center of Alexandria, Al Manshia, inside an ancient Italian-style building constructed in 1887. It was founded in 1930 by the Behna Family who settled in Egypt years before they opened Behna as the first film production and distribution company in Egypt. Up to this moment, archives of the early Egyptian cinema works are kept there. After all these years, Behna El Wekalah is still open, serving as an art space for contemporary art featuring cinema. The transdisciplinary space is dedicated to critical discourse and praxis in the arts, always with an eye on the dynamics of dominant epistemological, artistic, and cultural production and reception. It is Noor’s first time to work and exhibit here.

Noor lives and works between Cairo and Jerusalem. She works with video, performance, and text. Looking at her work in the exhibition, there’s a strong presence of the concepts of memory, historical narratives, and the structure of archives. She examines ideas of presence and absence, truth and fiction by searching in the gaps of archives and the history of institutions. I got to know Noor in the context of us being mothers and artists. We spoke about the first year of motherhood, tips and tricks of raising children, of thinking about their future, but we rarely talked about our artistic practices. We exchanged websites in the hope that we will meet specifically to exchange and discuss ideas. Nearly a year passed by before I found in her artwork entitled Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains a space to critique the prevalent frameworks of approaching photographic archives.

About the dream and the dreamer

The work is based on one photo that Noor Abuarafeh found during her artistic research on Palestinian art. She developed a film that refers to the time that passed from 1985, when the photo was taken, to 2015, when she conducted her research. For her, this photo embodies two separate times: the interval between the time in which it was taken and a second one that was created when she found it. What she did was simply open up a lost time interval during these 30 years.

The film begins with a question from the narrator on a still image of a young man who appears to be in his early thirties. The question “When the dreamer dies, what happens to the dream?” is repeated three times, underlining the open question rather than giving an answer. The young man’s portrait is also repeated consecutively during the duration of the film. It comes as evidence of his absence. Each time his photo is repeated, it becomes easier to identify him, increasing our curiosity about him. We quickly learn that the narrator is the person portraited as a young man. He is himself an artist, and he speaks as if he is in conversation with Noor describing her research process.

He is one of the artists depicted in the photograph that Noor refers to. It was taken in an art gallery in Jerusalem in 1985 for a group of artists after the opening of their exhibition titled ‘The First Spring’. The picture shows fourteen artists whose individual paths Noor is trying to track in her research, looking up their identities and artwork and asking if they are still practicing art. She managed to find the names of the artists in the picture, and we learn that the narrator is the Palestinian artist Saqr Al-Qateel. Noor explains, “For me, I wasn’t interested in the artist’s life. I didn’t even know if his work was worth years of research. I was interested in the research itself, without knowing where it would lead me from the very beginning, and what kind of questions would arise from forgetting this artist. But during the research, I felt that some kind of relationship was formed between me and Saqr Al-Qateel. There was no intention to reach an end, which could be his paintings. The goal was to trace the path of this artist and to understand the relationship of such an artist to different concepts such as archive and memory.” Extract from an interview with the curator and writer Ali Hussein Al-Adawi, published at Rumors as Ephemeral Truths publication, produced by Behna Al Wekalah, Alexandria, August 2021

Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains film extract, courtesy of the artist01.jpg
Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains. Film Still. Image: Noor Abuarafeh.

The soundtrack of the film is a collage of fragments of a dialogue between Noor and Saqr. Sometimes we find him surprised by the way she conducts her research; he does not like that she turns him into just a number in the picture before she even gets to know his name. Yet, he follows her work with passion, wishing that she succeeds in her quest to reach him and his artworks. He knows that she is still unaware of his death, so he leaves her to search for him without any help, happy with all her questions which reveal an archive that some people only carry in their memory. Saqr, the narrator, announces his death before Noor can, as a fact, by the end of the film. Despite the sadness accompanying the story of Saqr Al-Qateel, his repeated image with his clear smile alleviates the pain resulting from his absence and the loss of his traces.

Saqr talks to his friend Tayseer, artist ‘Number 12’ in the photo, about his disappointment on being absent from art foundations’ archives, despite his exhibitions within and outside of Palestine. That coincides with Noor’s research; she was unable to find him in any of the Palestinian art institutions. There was barely any archival trace of his artistic practice and exhibitions, only a copy of an invitation for his solo exhibition in 1987. The imaginary dialogue between Saqr and Tayseer was emotionally inspiring and encouraged me to reflect on the status of archives under occupation that resulted in a biased outline of the history and disarray in the collective memory.

Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains film extract, courtesy of the artist03
Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains. Film Still. Image: Noor Abuarafeh.

Noor did not find any evidence of Saqr’s works until she managed to find contacts of his family members and his friend, Tayseer Barakat. She then discovered that Tayseer had kept the complete works of Saqr Al-Qateel in his studio after Al-Qateel entrusted him with them before his death. One can instantly understand that it was because of the absence of Palestinian art institutions and the overriding of the Israeli occupation that personal collectibles gained tremendous value. Such absence and ignorance create a constant desire for documenting, archiving, and preserving. Individual and collective efforts helped to resist the process of getting lost. Noor created the film as an archive that was formed and shaped by everyone who took part in her research, by all the the images and documents that she found. They all worked as pieces for the puzzle of his trace.

She not only created a visual narrative on Saqr Al-Qateel but made it an example. Her striving to follow his paintings was able to revive a dreamy period of Palestinian art. It created a perception of how exciting this period was, not through what it contained in elements and persons, but rather through the sympathy it had with those included in this archive.

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Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains. Film Still. Image: Noor Abuarafeh.

The processing of the film was serious yet very playful. Noor reproduced the photo of the exhibition opening that she found 30 years after it was taken, displaying it differently by hiding parts of it to understand what is left, then hiding the other part and reshowing what was hidden. She used digital methods of cutting, numbering, and identification, which turned the image into a piece of fabric, flexible and smooth in its form. The way she worked with images managed to penetrate their vagueness and anonymity, and go beyond what they depicted. There is a materialistic sense in her artistic approach that opened the door to rethinking archives and how to read and deal with them in light of image digitization and the ease of its circulation.

In the last part of the film, there are shots of staged takes where the subjects are asked to stand still, yet there is a slight movement of their bodies, from the air blowing on their hair, their scarf, or from motorcycles passing in the background. Characters and elements of these compositions are extracts of Saqr Al-Qateel’s paintings that Noor generated. It was her way to investigate the image inventory, trying to obtain information about this artistic period in Jerusalem, what time has prevented her from knowing.

Reaching out across generations

In one of these shots, there is a group of children standing side by side looking at the camera, while their eyes move in several directions, looking at the photographer behind the camera, waiting for the picture to be taken. The time interval of these shots is pensive and mesmerizing while looking at them. Noor finds very inspiring imageries for perceiving time as a process that impacts our memory and the way we memorize.

I am impressed at how the scattered archival material Noor found about Saqr Al-Qateel provides her with traces that were essential in her research objective to encounter his forgotten artistic career. She built an artwork as an archive, not only archiving what she found but reflecting on all aspects that shape an archive. In her experimental approach to photography, collage and composition, she creates an open framework that allows us to track a moment in Palestinian art history, as well as the many ways it can be reviewed. Her curiosity and research, experimentation, and artistic creativity can be regarded as a model on how to handle history with interest, empathy, and open minds.

‘Observational Desire On a Memory that Remains’ is a model of how we can recheck our archives, including what is missing. In a time when we can’t be sure about the perspectives, narratives, and displays of the past, we need a new approach to look, to seek, and to surface what belongs to our past.

For me, this is a great way to resist forgetfulness. Going back to the questions that my visit to the museum of Egypt railways had provoked in me, I can now imagine ideas to find open access to what we call the past. Noor found imageries that stage the dialogic interaction of past and present, of known and unknown, cared or lost. This is a way of looking at archives, in a hope of regaining an interest that was lost and obliterated by the everyday flow of image production.

Noor Abuarafeh: Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains (2014)


Behna El Wekalah
Egyptian National Railway Museum

LINKS Noor Abuarafeh Noor Abuarafeh