An archival show presented as fragmented, polyvocal narrative, “Unfolding” is the history of the contemporary Middle East spun out in multiple directions at once, threading war mythology with pendulant social progress, inevitably and helplessly politicized.

Zaatari, who came of age during the nation’s civil war, maintains some criticality toward interpretive documentation. Considering the witness account as both journalism and diary, he cocreated the Arab Image Foundation in 1997, which has so far collected 600,000 photographs from the past 150 years in the region. The archive is a resource whose wealth lies not only in the sheer volume of such precarious and delicate ephemera but also in its diversity—capturing not only the news but the history of the photographic medium in this cultural context.

Heavily convoluted backstories are illustrated by overlapping, simultaneous still and moving images. In the town of Saida in the ’50s, a Mr. Baqari is an ominous neighbor to the photographer Hashem el Madani, and their shadowy exchanges are captured in Zaatari’s multimedia project Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2010–15, a main thread in this exhibition. Baqari’s wife, her sister, and their friends would visit the artist’s studio to have their portraits taken; after learning about this, Mr. Baquari demanded that the negatives be destroyed because his wife participated without his permission. They compromised by scratching the photographs with a pin. The resulting lacerated images by el Madani are interspersed among various excavated films emanating from a constellation of projectors, with seating for an audience of one. Lone women, each identified only as “Mrs. Baqari’s friend,” look out between the rough etches as though from behind bars. Recirculating these images puts a match to them, finally igniting what’s long been kept covered over low heat.



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