There is something very important going on at the Bargehouse. We are being invited to a celebration of Bedouin culture, and in accepting, we will also bear witness to the realtime and potentially permanent extinction of an undervalued way of life. This exhibition reminds us that the loss of indigenous cultures is happening at an accelerated rate and on a worldwide scale.
Be it the result of politics or environmental conditions, there has been an erosion of the centuries-old birthright of the Bedouin of Lebanon, Palestinian territories and Jordan to freely wander the desert. No longer can they be romanticized as land-holding farmers; instead, they are being reduced to a landless group and herded into impoverished working-class settlements.
Photographers Olga Stefatou and Stamos Abatis focus on many of these concerns by filming the day-to-day reality of the living conditions of their subjects, knowing that their images will stand in stark contrast to an idealized nomadic past. It must have been a haunting task for Stefatou and Abatis to experience, for it is impossible to sidestep the unavoidable notion that they may be the last to witness this extinction, that they might have already recorded the death rattle of the Bedouin’s fading world. They must fear that without drawing attention to the Bedouin plight, the loss of a whole culture will go unnoticed.
Taking the long view, the portraits of the elderly tribesmen remind us that this could be – us. While we may not share the same specific ethnicity or homeland, our earliest ancestors did emerge from an agrarian past. Ultimately, this exhibition feels like a soft intervention, a heads-up to appreciate the values of our forebears, to be kind in our negotiations with the present, and to prepare for the fast-approaching and possibly merciless world of the future.
The “Arab Bedouin: No Future Without Past” exhibition is funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund in partnership with the UK Department for digital, Cultural, Media and Sport. Spread over 4 floors in the OXO Tower, it is a layered mix of simple domestic installations that focuses on food and coffee preparation, handmade clothing, musical instruments and a night sky navigation video. On the uppermost floor, illuminated portraits line a darkened room that resonates with hauntingly comforting chanting.
One leaves this show with a sense of the transience of life, a transience that also ignites the basic human drive for survival, and of Bedouin defiance, power, and pride. Photographers Stefatou and Abatis have successfully reached out and shared humanity with us, and for that reason, I walked away from this show with a sense of hope.
Most of the photographs are the work of Olga Stefatou and Stamos Abatis. The show is located on Bargehouse Street, OXO Tower Wharf, South Bank, London, UK. It runs from 15 January 2020 – 25 January 2020