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Akram Zaatari: Father and Son

by Tom Denman
Reviews / Exhibition • 27.06.2024

Since the 1990s Akram Zaatari (b.1966) has been concerned with forms of restitution. His practice often involves acts of archival, para-archaeological excavation. In 1997 he co-founded the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut, an archive in which he attends to the contingencies of displacement that have affected the documents that he examines, in an attempt to restore something that has been lost or taken. This could be human dignity, ritual value or something harder to pin down; it generally resides in the realm of meaning and affect, transmitted by artistic invention rather than the physical transportation of an actual artefact. Zaatari’s film Ain el Mir 23.11.2002 FIG.1 shows people digging up a mortar shell that contains a letter, which was buried in the garden of a family home by a resistance fighter after the Lebanese Civil War in 1991. In the letter, the author sympathetically assures the displaced family that the occupying resistance has preserved their home. Zaatari filmed the excavation in 2002, used parts of it for his 2005 film In This House, and subsequently returned to the footage for this full-length display. In the artist’s solo exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples, titled Father and Son, the video is shown on a monitor placed at the viewer’s feet.

In 2020 Zaatari began a PhD at CY Cergy Paris University, deepening his investigation of archaeological sites – in the more traditional, violent sense – in Lebanon. The project focuses on the sarcophagi of two sixth-century BCE Canaanite kings, Tabnit and his son Eshmunazar II, who were buried in the necropolis of Ayaa near Sidon (modern-day Saida, the artist’s hometown). Eshmunazar’s sarcophagus was discovered in 1855 and soon exported to France, eventually finding its way to the Musée du Louvre, Paris; Tabnit’s was excavated in 1887 and is now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. At the heart of Father and Son are recent works stemming from this doctoral research. They exemplify the ways in which art can negotiate the complications that arise when repatriation fails to provide adequate compensation for the damage inflicted by an artefact’s excavation. They also speak to how careful and creative attendance to the archival and archaeological continuum can constitute a different form of restitution – not in the sense of returning the object, but rather in returning something to it.

Judging by the inscriptions on the sarcophagi, their rightful resting place would seem to be the necropolis of Ayaa. But this would of course require the impossible prerequisite that time is reversed, undoing the spiritual violence inflicted by the raiding of their tombs. The print I Tabnit FIG.2 stems from a photograph by the Ottoman archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey, who oversaw Tabnit’s exhumation, showing a closeup of a Phoenician inscription in which the king forbids anyone from opening his coffin.1 Painted onto the print’s surface in white acrylic is a disquieting, spectral image of a skeleton.2 Its graffiti-like presence is at odds with the archival paratext, which includes colour-coded translations of the inscription, invalidating its instruction. The acrylic mark is a fictional and affective intervention that operates both in relation to and adamantly outside of the temporal deadlock of the museum, unearthing Tabnit’s voice from under archaeology’s suffocating strata. Zaatari leaves it to the viewer to find the source for this additional image: a photograph taken after the excavators laid Tabnit out in the sun.3

The print prepares the viewer for Father and Son: A Mother’s Voice FIG.3, an installation comprising two ‘moments’. A sarcophagus-shaped mirror, with a fragment reproduced from Eshmunazar II’s sarcophagus laid over it, is positioned upright against the gallery wall. A black cutout acts as its shadow and bears his funerary inscription, which is considered one of the most significant examples of Phoenician script. An ultrasound scan is projected onto the mirror, suggesting the bond between mother and child which, in the work’s archaeological context, presages its own severance. The inscription is the only source of biographical information about Eshmunazar II’s mother, the powerful priestess Am’ashtart, who might have been buried in an unmarked sarcophagus in the same complex.4 The second ‘moment’ – which was enacted thirty-two days after the first, in reference to the number of years between the two excavations – inserted the image of Tabnit, who is represented by a black bas relief positioned behind the sarcophagus of his son. By installing the sarcophagi in the order of their discovery –  and thus looking back through time and through archaeology – Zaatari imagines a ritual zone in which some form of family reunion is possible.

In the series An Extraordinary Event (2018), Zaatari turns to a series of photographs that document the temporary, open-air museum for the seventeen sarcophagi Hamdi Bey extracted in Sidon, restoring dignity to the artefactual and human subjects. The artist has edited the images so that the artefacts radiate white light, obscuring their details – they were, after all, not supposed to be seen by the living – and highlighting the workers in the background. In All that Refuses to Vanish: The Tabnit Monolith FIG.4 Zaatari has reconstructed, using modern-day industrial machinery, a method that was possibly used by the Canaanites to lower into the ground the type of monolith destroyed by Hamdi Bey in order to reach Tabnit’s tomb. The work bears the same title as an essay Zaatari published in 2017, in which he argued that as a photograph’s displacement approximates that of the people depicted – the Palestinians forced out of their homeland since the 1948 Nakba, for example – its accumulation of marks embodies a refusal to vanish from history.5 Here, the obdurate presence of Zaatari’s readymade stands for an affectively corresponding, if not equivalent, act of defiance.

The works based on Zaatari’s research about Sidon complement the archaeological dimension of his wider practice, in which creative excavation is also an act of restitution. Archeology FIG.5 is a monumental photograph of a nude athlete.6 Only fragments of his body, which resembles an ancient statue, are visible: the plate is stained and apparently damaged, itself appearing like an recently unburied object. Photographic Currency (2019) consists of photographs of quilt makers in Saida in the 1950s standing beside their work, while in the middle of the room hang quilts made by one of their sons FIG.6. Venus of Beirut FIG.7 is a marble relief based on a clandestine photographic transparency of a nude woman probably taken in the 1930s – a ‘new’ fabrication that is retrieved from the morally ambiguous depths of time. Similarly, for this exhibition Zaatari has produced Ibrahim and Cat for Inji Efflatoun FIG.8, a brass relief based on a photograph taken by the father of the Egyptian modernist painter and feminist activist Inji Efflatoun (1924–89), for her to paint from; the painting, if ever executed, is now lost. Zaatari’s work therefore becomes a historical relic in which family, politics and image-making come together, filtering through time.

Zaatari’s practice is a percolative one. He does not revisit the past so much as attend to its perpetuity through layers. This is why the ink in his map drawings of the Mediterranean, which are arranged throughout the gallery, seems to bleed out from their surfaces: a visual metonym of the conceptual emergence of place and archaeological time’s equivalence with topographic depth. The sea is isolated, with ample blank space around it, as though it were the ‘middle’ of the world in accordance with the Mediterranean’s etymology in various languages. In [MŠʾ MʿRB] East West (2024), the surrounding land is scattered with Phoenician letters, perhaps referring to the extent of Phoenicia’s economic and cultural influence, or its role, as the historian Carolina López-Ruiz has stated, in creating ‘a first, truly interconnected Mediterranean’.7 In [YM DM] Bloody sea FIG.9, red pigment spills into the water, most densely on the sea’s war-torn eastern shore and the islands that are both flash points for refugees and historically contested outposts. As a signifier, the Mediterranean is far from universal, but seen in this way it becomes an archipelago of subjective, distinct and yet ancestrally relatable experiences.

By exhibiting the fruits of his research alongside his own photographs and those from his collection, Zaatari’s exhibition navigates the continuum of archaeology and the archive, recognising that time can be neither reverted nor encapsulated at a remove – that archaeology is, as Dan Hicks has written, ‘the science of human duration’.8 Zaatari’s practice is palimpsestic not only in the metaphorical sense of sifting through layers of documentation and earth, but also in the textual sense as formulated by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette: the artist creatively engages with documentary evidence to parody archaeological strata.9 It might be said that such parody – involving interventions on the fallacious assumptions of objectivity – is a liberatory strategy, freeing artefacts from the museum’s spatiotemporal fixity. The beauty in this is by no means superfluous: it ushers forth a return.


Exhibition details

Akram Zaatari: Father and Son

Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples

23rd April–20th July 2024

About the author

Tom Denman

is a freelance art critic based in London. His writing has appeared in ART PAPERSArtReviewArt Monthly and Flash Art.


  • Work based on a photograph by Osman Hamdi Bey, courtesy Abdul-Hamid Albums, Istanbul University. footnote 1
  • The skeleton recalls T.J. Demos’s critique of the 2006 exhibition Out of Beirut at Modern Art Oxford, in which ‘fiction facilitates memory by linking representation with affect’, see T.J. Demos: The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, Durham and London 2013, p.194. footnote 2
  • It is alleged that the sun accelerated the decomposition of Tabnit’s corpse (some of which was remarkably well preserved), therefore accelerating also his relegation into the past. See C.C. Torrey: ‘A Phoenician royal inscription’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 23 (1902), pp.159–73, at p.169. footnote 3
  • See S. Ackerman: ‘The mother of Eshmunazor, Priest of Astarte: a study of her cultic role’, Die Welt des Orients (2013), pp.158–78. footnote 4
  • A. Zaatari: ‘All that Refuses to Vanish’, in idem, et al.: exh. cat. Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Barcelona (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona) 2017, pp.99–104. footnote 5
  • Work based on an eroded photographic capture on glass by Antranick Anouchian, from the collection of the Arab Image Foundation and Mohsen Yammine. footnote 6
  • C. López-Ruiz: Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean, Cambridge MA 2021, p.2. footnote 7
  • D. Hicks: The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, London 2020, p.36. footnote 8
  • See G. Genette: Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree [1982], transl. C. Newman and C. Doubinsky, Lincoln 1997, pp.10–11. footnote 9

See also

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