Retrospective photography exhibition: Abbas Attar

It was a bright and sunny day today, almost too bright for my liking, but I did have a chance to visit the “Abbas: 45 years in photography” exhibit at the Singapore national museum.  Mind-blowing to say the least,  it almost gave me the same awesome feeling and afterglow I had after the Yousuf Karsh exhibition in Seoul, from being in the mind of a photographic genius for an hour. The difference is that Singapore doesn’t seem to have a knack for promoting the artist, with no booth selling his works, or a memento we could bring home to remember such earth-shattering photography. The museum guides did not help at all, not knowing whether there were books available, and directing me very cluelessly to the Banyan tree museum shop.

Little gripes aside, I was struck by the photographer of such gravitas choosing to exhibit 130 of his black and white photographs in humble Singapore. The foreword to the exhibition was a word from the photographer himself, who did mention that such an exhibition was usually done posthumously, but that he felt honored nonetheless.

For almost 45 years I have roamed the world, in search of images of upheaval; initially political and social, then later, religious.

Retrospectives are best done when the photographer is no longer around – there will be no surprises then. Or so I thought until the National Museum of Singapore suggested I have one.

As I am still roaming the world, let us consider this retrospective with some humility (who knows how many more years I shall roam?) ‘The first 45 years’.”

Thereafter the first few shots on display were by him as a young photographer, of wars and conflict in Chile, Bangladesh, and Ireland, to name a few. The gem of the collection was the near crumbling building in Ireland which was caused by an explosion orchestrated by the IRA. I stared at the crystallized moment and wondered how a photographer could risk his life to capture such a riveting shot. Then I realized that it was probably part of Abbas’ formative training as a socio-political photojournalist, being in the thick of things, something that never left him as I explored the next few thematic galleries.

"Wall crumbles, after a presumed act of arson by the Irish Republican Army. 1972"

"In the aftermath of the Biafran civil war, a refugee mother and her child suffer from famine. Owerri, Nigeria, 1970."

Next up was the Iranian revolution, which was depicted in a very emotionally-charged way, from a picture on the burning of a portrait of the Shah, to the lynching of a woman supporter of the Shah.  The pictures represented an ongoing struggle, with little features of death arising from the conflict. These spoke volumes about where the heart of his work was, the unfinished work there, and it was objectively my favourite gallery in the entire exhibition. I later found out that Abbas was an Iranian who had emigrated to Paris as a small boy, and came back in 1978 to 1980 to cover the revolution. He said he was no longer just a photographer but someone who had become involved, very much.

"At the start of the revolution, rioters burn a portrait of the Shah, 1978."

"A woman, believed to be a supporter of the Shah, was lynched by a rioting mob. Tehran, Iran, 1979."

Later, in a short interlude from the sobriety, were pictures of Mexico, in the form of a little “novella” which he said helped hone his craft after shooting so many wars. Scenes of pigs being dragged by Mexican men and a young girl ala “little lolita” were some of the more lighthearted shots in the entire gallery, along with the ‘granddad- a work in progress’ exhibit where he exhibited photos of his granddaughters. It added a personal touch to the portfolio of his other photojournalist masterpieces.

Then Abbas went very religious-themed in his sequencing, he went from “in whose name” (exploring Islam today and its internal tensions), Christianity (of which he calls a “symbol of the ubiquity and the relentless power of Western civilization”),  and Buddhism (“the Children of the Lotus”). He also covered the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was struck more by the musings on the walls of the gallery, in respect of his expressed disappointment at the Cambodian Khmer Rouge allowing a quarter of its population to be either starved or killed, despite being Buddhists before nurtured on values of compassion, and that jihadists were making a “daily nuisance” of themselves with their “daily acts of terror”. He seemed to express some kind of disbelief and ludicrousness at the senseless violence and death witnessed before him, no matter where he photographed. And it showed in the photos.

"Next to a tank destroyed by US aerial bombing, a dead Iraqi soldier is mummified by drops of oil escaping from wells, set on fire by the soldier's unit before retreating. Kuwait, 1991."

If there was anything slightly negative about this exhibit, it would be the heaviness and intensity that gripped me throughout. But I wouldn’t consider that a criticism at all. It made me think about life out of the confines of my own world, and the bloodshed permanently etched into the last 45 years of human history. I felt slightly nauseous after viewing the vivid images, but it was a testament to how real they were. I salute Abbas Attar, and wish him a good many more years in the field!

Isn’t photography ‘writing with light’? But with the difference that while the writer possesses his word, the photographer is himself possessed by his photo, by the limit of the real which he must transcend so as not to become its prisoner.” – Abbas Attar

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One thought on “Retrospective photography exhibition: Abbas Attar

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