The walk along Quai Branly is noisy, but the din does not emanate from the traffic heading into the chic 16th arrondissement (the adjectival prefix now permanent since the birth within of the Bruni-Sarkozy enfant). Le Bruit du Monde – the noise of the world – is the defining curatorial statement offered by Francoise Huguier for the third edition of PhotoQuai, the Parisian celebration of non-Western photography. This noise is visual. It’s discordant and confusing, revealing and obfuscating by turns. As a snapshot of le monde 2011, it’s apposite.

PhotoQuai 2011

Our eyes, at this exclusively outdoor exhibition, are directed towards photographs from Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania. Already the definition of non-Western photography is problematised from the outset by the question of which countries, or even continents, to include. Photographs from Russia and South Africa, for example, have no trouble entering the contemporary photographic canon; nor does work from Japan, yet the opportunity to look at work by Indonesian or Laotian artists is rare.

© Chao-Liang Shen

Of the two artists from Laos, it is the work by Sengsong, Before and After Us, a study of the country’s creeping environmental destruction, that resonates. Modern detritus is exquisitely framed, by the photographer, but also by nature itself. Rocks caress a squashed soda can, water swallows discarded magazine advertisement spreads, a banana skin makes a circle of protection around a sweet wrapper. This is a subtle work, charting the effects of a monumental cultural change. Ka Xiong, on the other hand, takes the viewer on a journey deep into cultural myth to encounter the spirit world of the Hmong people. While this is a beautifully realised project, it gets somewhat lost in PhotoQuai. It is not possible for such a work to be assimilated in a walk-through outdoor exhibition of this nature, and would benefit from more context (and possibly a roof).

© Sengsong, Before and After Us

© Ka Xiong, Spirit World

Though the exhibition framework is itself an artistic triumph, carrying the viewer along, as though with the current, on a twisting, turning visual adventure, I found myself returning to the thought that an outdoor exhibition is ultimately not quite satisfying. While the limitlessness of the sky and the horizon should allow for great mental freedom, there is a sense that this already very complex exhibition is impossible to contain. This may well be an excellent antidote to the cultural supremacy of the museum, which dictates an artistic importance that can supercede the actual work. Yet even as I strayed across the road into the lush gardens of Musée Branly, the co-host of PhotoQuai, where a few further works were exhibited, I felt I wanted a deeper experience, that might get to the very heart of the purpose of this fascinating and ambitious undertaking.

The stand-out work among the Branly foliage was that of Nicene Kossentini, of Tunisia. Her series, Boujmal, is named after a dried out salt lake near her home town. She has fused each black and white landscape with a portrait from her own family album, following the maternal lineage. It’s a simple enough idea, but its execution is spine-tingling, and offers a fine meditation on one of photography’s favourite tropes, memory. The jardins du Branly seem under-utilised, and could host many more bodies of work, offering the viewer a differently-paced journey through the bruit.

© Nicene Kossentini, Boujmal

Back on Quai Branly, the signature work by Indian photographer Mohan Verma, which graces the catalogue cover, is a very clever critique of the fusion of indigenous and Western culture in his homeland. The project is called Faceless and is a nod to the practice, harnessed by contemporary advertising agencies and early 20th century Indian illustrators alike, of transposing a photographed face onto a body to which it did not belong. PhotoQuai cleverly installed a photo booth in the centre of the exhibition, to allow the viewers to play with their own identity. All of the photography from India is especially vibrant, pointing perhaps towards a burgeoning interest in that country’s art which may one day match the West’s love for its cuisine and sultry southern beaches.

© Mohan Verma, Faceless

As one of the curatorial team, Christian Caujolle notes, little of the work belongs to the genre of news photography or photojournalism. He suggests this is in part due to the economic and conceptual breakdown of media empires, and, further, that it – photojournalism – is not an important creative arena. I would in turn argue that photojournalism itself has changed, and has become a more reflective practice, and, further, that work like that of Roberto Candia from Chile is an excellent example of this change. We would look at his pictures and describe them as documentary, yet he was part of the press pack that descended on the San Jose copper mine, when 33 of its workers became trapped underground. Like his fellow photographers, Candia hunkered down for the agonising wait. He put his eyes to excellent use as he waited, utilising an ‘instamatic’ application on his cell phone to chronicle the detail he observed at this extraordinary scene – good luck cards, children’s drawings, a shaft of early morning light – and constructed a 33 image montage, one to represent each trapped man. This lo-fi approach offered certainly a more personal and intimate representation of the miners’ plight, but for me indicates that the new creative arena of photojournalism is alive and well… if only newspapers themselves would catch up with it, and commission, pay for and publish work like this, instead of the expected, overly-dramatic image.

© Roberto Candia, Plan B

Francoise Huguier, a very experienced artist herself, has brought an energy and great sense of freedom to this third edition. She worked with a team of curators with specialist knowledge of specific countries, approximately half of whom are French. They in turn worked with arts organisations at grass roots level to find the most interesting photographic practitioners to exhibit in Paris and the resulting work could not be anything other than wildly different. It might be interesting to curate to a theme of some kind within the existing framework; not to restrict, but to consolidate the vast knowledge, expertise and artistic achievement PhotoQuai celebrates.

Bringing non-Western art to the banks of the Seine arrests the habitual flow of culture, up to a point. Christian Caujolle defines our current epoch as a photographic interregnum, in which photography has to redefine itself after a century of domination. In this new world of images, the very act of looking, as we struggle to shake off the shackles of post-colonialism, political correctness and cultural supremacy, remains fraught. And endlessly exciting.
Max Houghton

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