DUBAI: A lone figure dressed in black sits cross-legged on the desert sands while facing a makeshift fishing hut, as dozens of birds fly over. The location is the island of Jubabibat — one of many that make up Abu Dhabi’s expansive yet little known archipelago — the man is artist and teacher Tarek Al-Ghoussein, who died unexpectedly in New York on June 11 at the age of 60.
The news was announced on Sunday by Al-Ghoussein’s representative gallery, Dubai-based The Third Line.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the sudden passing of Tarek Al-Ghoussein yesterday in New York City,” read the statement, posted to Instagram.
It is perhaps fitting to remember the artist through the poignant photograph from his series “Odysseus,” which Al-Ghoussein had been shooting since 2015 to capturing the archipelago in this somewhat unexplored part of the Arabian Gulf.
The image, which shows the artist in an almost meditative pose, gives a sense of the peace and calm that a moment in a desolate part of the Arabian Gulf can bring, a rare experience amid years of constant construction. Al-Ghoussein often includes himself in the images, thus involving self-portraiture and a performative aspect to the works.
To date, he had documented over 40 of the 214 islands in the archipelago, with several of the works going on show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of the Richard Mille Art Prize exhibition. The works, like others he l produced over the years throughout the UAE and greater Gulf, combine aspects of documentary photography and photojournalism as well as performance and self-portraiture, as Al-Ghoussein would often attest himself.
The Kuwaiti artist and educator was a professor of visual arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and had recently become the director of the MFA in art and media program at the university.
Friends, colleagues and students have taken to social media over the last 48 hours to commemorate his life and send condolences.
“We’re in shock about this awful news,” read a statement issued by NYU Abu Dhabi on Twitter.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian exiles, Al-Ghoussein grew up between the US, Japan and Morocco, traveling frequently with his diplomat father. He received his BFA in photography from New York University in 1985 and his MA in photography from the University of Mexico in 1989. Al-Ghoussein began working as a photojournalist documenting refugee camps in Jordan, yet 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 within Al-Ghoussein’s work — nods to his own family’s state as Palestinians in Kuwait, forced to leave their home and start anew somewhere else.
As curator Jack Persekian wrote so eloquently in Bidoun in 2005, “Even he would not deny the following: His composite background, his lack of direct familiarity with Palestine itself, is at the heart of the artist’s work.”
His first series of works titled “Performance Photographs” were self-portraits exhibited in the 2003 Sharjah Biennale as lightboxes. They later were displayed in group exhibitions in the US and Europe. Those same photographs were attacked, says Persekian, during a solo show in Berlin, with stones thrown so that the glass they were encased in shattered. The incident added to Al-Ghoussein’s own explorations into Palestinian and Arab identity, memories of home and the perception of Arabs who have been displaced.
A work that powerfully captures Al-Ghoussein’s quest to document and preserve sites on the verge of demolition and loss is Al-Sawaber (2015-17), shot in a former government housing project in Kuwait City. Demolition of the 33 buildings had been planned and over the span of three years Al-Ghoussein continued to return to it, documenting each of its 524 apartments. It was a place, he said, where Kuwaitis lived amidst communities of different Muslims, Christians and Hindus. The photographs capture not just the buildings, but the objects the former inhabitants left behind.
His work is now in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, Mathaf Museum, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah Art Foundation, Mori Art Museum, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, and the New York University Abu Dhabi, among others.