DUBAI: A lone figure dressed in black sits cross-legged on the desert sand facing a makeshift fishing shack, as dozens of birds fly overhead. The place is Jubabibat Island – one of many that make up the vast but little-known archipelago of Abu Dhabi – the man is artist and professor Tarek Al-Ghoussein, who died suddenly in New York on 11 June at the age of 60.
The news was announced on Sunday by Al-Ghoussein’s representative gallery, The Third Line, based in Dubai.
“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the sudden passing of Tarek Al-Ghoussein yesterday in New York,” read the statement posted on Instagram.
The artist is perhaps best remembered through the poignant photography in his “Ulysses” series, which Al-Ghoussein had been making since 2015 to capture the archipelago in this somewhat unexplored part of the Persian Gulf.
The image, which shows the artist in an almost meditative pose, conveys a sense of peace and calm that a moment in a desolate part of the Persian Gulf can bring, a rare experience amid years of constant construction. Al-Ghoussein often includes himself in the images, thus implying the self-portrait and a performative aspect of the works.
To date, he had documented more than 40 of the archipelago’s 214 islands, including several works exhibited at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of the Richard Mille Art Prize exhibition. The works, like others he has produced over the years across the United Arab Emirates and the greater Gulf, combine aspects of documentary photography and photojournalism as well as performance and self-portraiture, such as Al -Ghoussein often attests to this himself.
The Kuwaiti artist and educator was a professor of visual arts at New York University Abu Dhabi and recently became director of the university’s MFA program in art and media.
Friends, colleagues and students have taken to social media over the past 48 hours to commemorate his life and send condolences.
“We are in shock at this terrible news,” read a statement posted by NYU Abu Dhabi on Twitter.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian exiles, Al-Ghoussein grew up between the United States, Japan and Morocco, traveling frequently with his diplomat father. He received his BFA in photography from New York University in 1985 and his master’s degree in photography from the University of Mexico in 1989. Al-Ghoussein began working as a photojournalist documenting refugee camps in Jordan, but a desire to go beyond the limits of photography and capture the emotional and psychological struggles of being a refugee led him to venture into the realm of conceptual photography.
Ideas of exile, displacement and conflict persist in Al-Ghoussein’s work – nods to the state of his own family as Palestinians in Kuwait, forced to leave their homes and start anew elsewhere. .
As curator Jack Persekian so eloquently wrote in Bidoun in 2005, “Even he would not deny the following: his composite background, his lack of direct familiarity with Palestine itself, is central to the work of the artist”.
His first series of works entitled “Performance Photographs” were self-portraits exhibited at the Sharjah Biennale in 2003 as light boxes. They were then exhibited in group exhibitions in the United States and Europe. These same photographs were attacked, says Persekian, during a personal exhibition in Berlin, with stones thrown so that the glass in which they were enclosed would break. The incident added to Al-Ghoussein’s own explorations of Palestinian and Arab identity, memories of home and perceptions of Arabs who have been displaced.
One work that powerfully captures Al-Ghoussein’s quest to document and preserve sites on the brink of demolition and loss is Al-Sawaber (2015-17), shot in a former government housing project in Kuwait City. The demolition of the 33 buildings had been planned and for three years Al-Ghoussein kept coming back to them, documenting each of his 524 apartments. It was a place, he said, where Kuwaitis lived among communities of different Muslims, Christians and Hindus. The photographs capture not only the buildings, but also the objects left behind by the former inhabitants.
His work is now in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, Royal Museum of Photography Copenhagen, Mathaf Museum, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah Art Foundation , from the Mori Art Museum. , the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation and New York University Abu Dhabi, among others.