Necessità dei volti. A Dialogical Procedure and Selections from a Provisional Archive 03/2017, Camera Austria International

In the quiet of the exhibition space, the visitor makes a personal encounter with photographs printed on the pages of a few hand-bound books or carefully inserted in lidded boxes. Revealing what is to be seen requires an act of uncovering. Emerging are historic photographs showing men in long robes in a desert sorting through war materials, contemporary protest scenes similar to those proliferating in the media since the Arab Spring, and a variety of disturbing images, some pixelated due to their poor quality, exposing wounded bodies: men and women with shirts drenched in blood, swollen faces, giant bruises on legs, arms, and torsos.

The images that are on display together with research material and books, such as Frantz Fanon’s famous The Wretched of The Earth, have been assembled by the Informal Collective on Western Sahara, a group of Sahrawi activists, international artists, historians, and philosophers. They document the uprising of the Sahrawi people against the Moroccan colonial administration in Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony. In 1975, soon after the Spanish had withdrawn from the territory, Mauritania and Morocco invaded it. The socialist Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement founded two years earlier, resisted the invasion—thus entering into a long armed conflict—and in 1976 declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. While Mauritania withdrew its groups in 1979, Morocco has continued its aggression and occupation to date—despite repeated calls by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations for initiating the decolonization process by means of a referendum for self-determination.

Since 2005, the Sahrawi people have collectively risen up against the Moroccan colonial administration, facing imprisonment and torture. The documentation of the uprising started in “the black prison of El Ainún”, where inmates “got into the habit of taking photographs, in secret, at night and when it was possible to dodge surveillance,” as activist Aminatou Haidar writes. “The militants are most involved in the photographing, but also those who had never owned a camera before, the young and the old, the women.”1

Image-making has become a shared social practice of resistance for the Sahrawis, resulting in this constantly growing archive that bears the title “Vedere l’occupazione” (Seeing the Occupation). It serves to draw attention to a conflict that is little known, mainly due to a strict censorship inflicted on the region by the Moroccan occupiers who deny international journalists entry to the territory, and it enables the protestors to share immediate knowledge of the events with the community itself, as Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh says, a member of the collective.

The group started researching material gathered by the Sahrawis as early as 1997. The Italian film-maker Mario Martone and the Italian photographer Patrizio Esposito—who had both visited the camps in southern Algeria before, where part of the Sahrawi people had been stranded while fleeing bombing raids by the Moroccan air force—encountered the “Sahrawi Museum of Resistance” set up there during a visit to the area. The museum contained another image archive, carefully kept in wooden boxes: a collection of more than 25,000 personal photographs belonging to Moroccan soldiers who had been killed in combat or taken prisoner by the Polisario in the late 1970s. The Sahrawi people collected their belongings, including these intimate portraits of family and loved ones, with the purpose of documenting their fight for independence and proving the existence of the war that was officially denied by the invading country. Back then, photography had not yet established itself as a cultural practice in the Sahrawi community. It is all the more remarkable how the Sahrawis have since handled these found photographs, acting as temporary custodians, prepared and willing to return the photographs to family members of the fallen soldiers at any time.

Believing that these photographs were “a powerful testimony to the cruelty and absurdity of war”,2 Martone and Esposito entered into a dialogue with the Polisario, who then authorized access to the archive. Esposito scanned 483 images to be utilized later for generating a discussion about the future of the Western Sahara. The images were printed in a book under the title Necessità dei volti (The Necessity of Faces), of which only twenty hand-bound copies existed and were shared at small gatherings in private homes. The books were entrusted to personalities and institutions, who then organized further encounters. Among the custodians are, for instance, the film-maker Ken Loach, the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation, and the Kandinsky Library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

In the framework of the Berlin exhibition, the group organized a symposium, taking the dialogue beyond the realm of the visual, inviting the audience to an in-depth conversation with Sahrawi activists, members of the collective, and guests from different disciplines invited for the occasion, among them Erik Hagen from Western Sahara Resource Watch. This organization researches and campaigns against Morocco’s resource plundering of the Western Sahara territory and the involvement of renewable energy companies, such as the German giant Siemens, who builds wind farms there and supplies 95 per cent of the energy required for the plundering of minerals in the occupied territory. In an intimate circle reminiscent of the private sessions in which the book Necessità dei volti was first revealed, the participants emphasized the urgency of acting in an ongoing crisis, giving insights into the geopolitical interests and the involvement of players such as the EU that now frame the conflict.3 Questions of how to approach and contextualize the two archives remain one of the principal fields of interests of the group’s research. For instance, the group organized a cooperation with the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, which publishes a regular supplement with images from “Vedere l’occupazione” and other photographs documenting the conflict.

Although both Sahrawi image archives serve the same purpose in an ongoing decolonial struggle—they are intervening in a regime of visibility and are vehicles for a bottom-up historicization process—the image types taking centre stage in them couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, there are the family portraits carried by the fallen soldiers, the meticulously staged and lighted, cared-for objects, meant for private use, strangely entering an archive testifying to an unknown war, adapting a new function. And on the other hand, there are the low-quality images taken with mobile phones, compressed jpgs, traveling through a jagged digital media landscape, poor images (Hito Steyerl) and at the same time migrant images (T. J. Demos) that represent and claim visibility for the exiled, stateless, and displaced—contextualized within an art discourse.

The poor image and the migrant image are central aspects of the militant image, a concept theorized by Urban Subjects and Reinhard Braun. They consider this image type to be a site of uprising, able to both represent and produce acts of militancy, as for instance in the many images from “Vedere l’occupazione”, in which protestors are waving the flag of the Polisario in front of the camera, staging an illegalized act (the flag is forbidden in the parts of the territory under Moroccan control). Visual militancy is a field of practice that has been researched especially in an art context, with artists appropriating or producing militant image archives and employing artistic strategies to produce knowledge and alternative histories, to counter ideologically informed narratives constructed by those in economic and military power. As Jeff Derksen remarks, reflecting upon the militant image, it is both forceful documentary imagery and enduring artistic work that have produced “a visual archive of images of how acts of militancy have derailed history from a trajectory guided from above”.4

Taking the Kurdish genocide as a point of departure, Susan Meiselas has mapped a visual history for “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History“ (1991–2008) with photographs taken by the artist and found historic portraits representing Kurdish identity that she collected over the course of the project. Lala Baradi layers narratives in the online-based project “Vox Populi: Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age”, indexing a variety of archives, such as the “Tharir Archives” (2016) of the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath. Rabih Mroué presents a disturbing investigation into the mediatization of the revolutionary body with “The Pixelated Revolution” (2012), a project based on a collection of digital footage of protestors filming snipers and being shot. While projects like these are characterized by appropriation and authorship, Necessità dei volti and °“Vedere l’occupazione” are based on a collective approach, with the protagonists of the uprising being involved in all aspects of the process.

Militant image archives are being produced with the very purpose of producing truth, of unsettling the politics of truth (guided from above). The narratives created by the Sahrawi archives are, of course, just as constructed as the official narratives they confront and oppose. As Hito Steyerl reminds us, documentary imagery simultaneously constructs and partakes in reality; it insists on a historical truth while demonstrating its constructive nature.5 The accusation of having manipulated the photographs is one that the Sahrawi people have been facing since they started spreading their images online, in social media and in blogs. A debate around the authenticity of this kind of documentary imagery will continue, though without being able to question the ethical urgency of the militant image. And it is especially contemporary art and theory that makes the bipolar nature of documentary imagery productive.

The aesthetics of “Vedere l’occupazione” are raw, direct, cruel; they are empowering, and they convey a sense of confidence far beyond an aesthetization of mysery—just think of the Muslim Sahrawi women exposing their harmed, partly uncovered bodies to the camera’s gaze, visually emphasizing the vulnerability of the displaced body, staging a symbolic act of self-determination. They claim authorship within a continuous flux of mediatized events that become history. Taking the militant image as a point of departure, the Informal Collective on Western Sahara imagines new forms of agency and intervention in the colonial matrix of power (Mignolo) and the therein established regimes of visibility.

1 “Verdere l’occupazione: Photographs from Western Sahara”, in Sahara Occidentale, con poche immagini, exh. cat. “Image in the Aftermath”, Beirut Art Center, 18.5.–16.7.2011, p. 2.

2 Ibid., p. 7.

3 See the free brochure: Western Sahara Resource Watch (ed.), Powering the Plunder: What Morocco and Siemens are hiding at COP22, Marrakech, published in November 2016.

4 Jeff Derksen for Urban Subjects, “Do Not Think One Has to Be Sad: Circulating the Militant Image”, in Urban Subjects (ed.), The Militant Image Reader (Graz: Edition Camera Austria, 2015), p. 14.

5 See Hito Steyerl, “Documentarism as Politics of Truth”, in Marius Babias (ed.), Hito Steyerl. Jenseits der Repräsenation / Beyond Representation, Essays 1999–2009, vol. 4: n.b.k. Diskurs (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016), pp. 181–187.

nGbK, Berlin, 9. – 23. 12. 2016