Gulfography is an online gallery created to showcase photographs from the Gulf region in the Middle East. The website, founded by Shammi Samano and Asma Al Kendi, aims to showcase all the hidden talents in the Gulf Region whether it’s from emerging or established artists. With the developing art scene in the Middle East, the creators of this website hope to establish a professional space for artists to exhibit their works.
A former college media professor, Shammi Samano holds a Master’s of Fine Arts from UCLA. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, she immigrated to the U.S. at age eight, speaking not a word of English. Her keen sense of discovery allowed her to look at everything through her “immigrant’s” eyes. She discovered her passion for film-making during the Gulf War in 1990, when she found that she had questions with no answers to. Samano has written and directed several films, including East, Anniversary, and Animal Stories, which have been screened at international film festivals; always portraying her point of view as an immigrant. She also produced the documentary Finding Mr. & Mrs. Right: Dubai Style while teaching Media Production in Dubai. Most recently, she curated a photo exhibit entitled “Privately.”
She co-founded Gulfography as a way to “speak to the immigrant in all of us that floats virtually off the ground—rootless, reaching for a new language that connects us to each other and a home where we finally belong.”
Born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, Asma Al Kendi was always exposed to foreign cultures and nationalities, seeing that the majority of the UAE’s residents are non-natives. She moved to the United States a few months after receiving her Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Dubai Women’s College. Upon arriving at San Francisco Airport, the first question she was asked by the passport control officer was, “Where is your burqa?” It was then that she realized that her part of the world was largely misunderstood.
Al Kendi made it her mission to show those outside the Gulf that the Middle East is “more than burqas, deserts, camels, and violence, and that women in the Gulf are just as strong, independent, and full of ambitions as women in the West.”
Along with Samano, she co-founded Gulfography to create a space for people in the Arab world to showcase their experiences with the rest of the world, hoping to build an artistic and technological bridge that connects us all through powerful, creative images that speak the language of the new generation.
Khaleejesque set out to learn more about this creative venture by chatting with its founders.
What inspired you to create this website?
Shammi: The idea came a few months after wrapping up an exhibit I curated in Dubai called “Privately” featuring the work of female Emirati photography students. Even though these women were fairly new to the field, I found their work provocative, bold, and technically pretty advanced. I had been a professor in Dubai for three years and I quickly realized that there was so much creative talent there that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Also, the filmmakers and photographers I was working with there were discussing a lot of controversial and relevant issues that really needed to be heard and understood inside and outside of the region. They just needed a space to showcase this talent outside of Flickr sites and their personal Facebook pages, where many emerging photographers start and stop.
Although the art scene is quickly developing, even exploding, in the region with the proliferation of galleries and global events like Art Dubai, many emerging artist still view showcasing their work publicly as an unrealistic dream. We just want to provide a more accessible space for them to approach us regardless of where they live or who they know—and the virtual space of website was the perfect answer. We chose to focus on the Gulf region because first, the co-founding team is from Iraq and UAE, but more importantly, there is very little representation of art from the Gulf in comparison to other parts of the Middle East.
What do you wish to accomplish by creating this website?
Asma: To our Gulf photographers, we want to give them a professional space to exhibit their work outside of the traditional gallery system, which is out of reach for many who are intimidated by it or don’t know how to get in. Too much good work from the region never crosses over into professional arenas. Also, by displaying their work in an online gallery like ours, people from all over the world can see it regardless of where they live and whether they would ever walk into a gallery or not.
To those from the West or without much exposure to the Gulf, we want to clear up certain misconceptions of the Gulf as a place where women are oppressed and there is no freedom, no expression, no art, etc. Being from the UAE and Iraq but currently based in the U.S., Shammi and I have both experienced firsthand some of the misconceptions that the general public has of the Middle East. I think Gulfography can show the outside world that the Gulf has people full of the same ambitions, hopes, and fears just like everyone else.
Who can submit photos?
Asma: Anyone who’s had experience in the Gulf region can submit their work for consideration. So far, most of our artists are locals but we are open to getting the work of expats as well because they are also a big part of the Gulf region and they’ve had their own experience and perspectives. Also, there are many people from the Gulf who live abroad, whether because of exile or choice, and those people are full of great stories that are expressed in their images.
Is there a specific theme that you look for in photographs?
Shammi: Not at this point. Right now we’re looking for images that are bold, have something to say, and are aesthetically powerful. A lot of times, we’re drawn to images that have an interesting story they want to tell. In the future, we’ll release certain themes that we will organize a collection around, but for now, the theme is wide open.
What are your future plans for this website?
We plan to have our first exhibition of work on the Gulfography.com site in three to six months. This will include signed photography as well as new photos that will premier at the exhibition and then be listed on the site the next day.
We are currently talking to partners in San Francisco and L.A. so our first exhibition will probably be in one of those cities, but New York will be the next U.S. city we exhibit in. After this, we will hold exhibitions in key European and Middle East cities.
In a year or two, we’d like to publish a book of photography that has been showcased on the site, and perhaps a small gallery focused on photography from/about the Gulf.
Be sure to check out the featured galleries online and submit an image or two www.gulfography.com
Images courtesy of Gulfography