By Belinda Hungerford
Following on from the successful 1975-76 Asia tour of Australian photography organised by ACP for the Department of Foreign Affairs, another international tour was planned, this time to the Middle East. Titled Modern Australian Photographic Art this exhibition featured 9 photographers, including one female this time: Nigel Clarke, John Delacour, David Ellis, Gerrit Fokkema, Carol Jerrems, Mark Lang, Glen O'Malley, Brian Thompson and John Williams. The content was similar to the previous exhibition in that it contained colour and black & white works of landscapes, portraits, and city and rural scenes emphasising people. However, whereas the previous exhibition contained individual interpretations of Australia, the works in this exhibition were more of a general interest and representative of photography as a fine art and how photographers choose different subjects, styles and techniques. On the whole the exhibition was very well received although at times disappointment was expressed that the work was not more typically Australian (understandable when the selection of photographs included examples of Fokkema’s Papua New Guinea work).
In 1980 the exhibition toured to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. The show was also proposed to Saudi Arabia but declined. According to documents in ACP’s archives, the reason for this was the lack of community meeting places (due to social and political reasons) and consequently the disinclination of Saudis to seek entertainment in public places. The Australian diplomats in Saudi Arabia felt that too much money and effort would be required to garner interest in the locals.
The exhibition file also contained a fascinating report of extracts of cables from the Australian diplomatic missions in the Middle East to the Cultural Exchanges section, Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra about the ACP exhibition. The reports from Lebanon and Syria have been transcribed below:
BEIRUT, LEBANON – Reported by C.J. Bright, Third Secretary, Australian Embassy.
“Because many Lebanese are still afraid to cross the line between East and West Beirut at night, we decided to hold two exhibitions: one in each half of the city. We arranged extensive publicity by means of brochures and posters (in English and Arabic) which were distributed widely in universities and cultural centres around Beirut. In addition, we placed advertisements in all major newspapers.
East Beirut Exhibition
The exhibition opened in East Beirut on 1 March 1980, in Galerie Damo. The gallery is a commercial one and one of the best in Beirut but we managed to use it without charge.
The opening was attended by about 70 people including a good cross section of Lebanese artists, painters, sculptors, poets, journalists and political and religious leaders. We served cheese and Australian wine which made a change from the usual Lebanese cocktail party format and was well received. The opening was covered by two of the three television channels and a film of the exhibition was shown on a women’s programme later in the week. There were also a number of articles in the press.
The comments we heard were generally favourable with particular praise of the work of Nigel Clarke. The youth of the photographers was also commented on. The coloured photographs attracted more attention than those in black and white.
About 350 people attended the exhibition during the week it was open.
West Beirut Exhibition
The West Beirut exhibition was opened in the Jaffet Library of the American University of Beirut on 10 March, 1980. Over 100 people, including members of parliament, university professors, diplomats and the cultural elite of West Beirut attended the opening and over 1000 attended the exhibition. The opening was similar in format to the opening in East Beirut.
Press coverage was, not surprisingly, less than for the East Beirut exhibition (we could not expect the press to cover it twice) but again the photographs were well received.
This was the first time this Embassy had any cultural activities since the start of the civil war in 1975. Our lack of experience here made the organisation difficult but we believe that the results justified the efforts and costs involved and we would certainly wish to be included when any future exhibitions are sent to the area.”
DAMASCUS, SYRIA – Reported by G.R. Bowker, First Secretary, Australian Embassy.
“The exhibition of Modern Australian Photographic Art was held in Damascus from 23 January to 28 January, and in Aleppo from 31 January to 6 February). We estimate that in Damascus around 1,500 would have seen it; in Aleppo the total would have been around 1,200.
The exhibition was held under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture, which assisted with the printing and distribution of invitations to the openings in both cities, and which also provided free use of the display facilities at the Damascus and Aleppo museums. The Minister of Culture was unable to open the exhibition because of illness, but was represented by the Deputy Minister. The opening was covered by the Syrian television. The Ministry was helpful at all times (though there were times when its internal coordination was deficient) and in Aleppo particularly the assistance and enthusiasm of the regional officials was most encouraging.
The exhibition was well received by the Syrian public. Attendance figures were slightly less than we had anticipated, but satisfactory all the same. The technical quality of the photographs was acknowledged readily enough, but we had the impression that many Syrians expected to see a more conventional treatment of typically Australian subject matter. A few Syrians expressed disappointment that none of the photographers had accompanied the exhibition.
The exhibition was the first staged by the Embassy in Syria, and we are encouraged by the results. We look forward to opportunities to stage more such exhibitions in the future.
Syrians take considerable pride in the fact they possess a long and distinguished library and cultural tradition. They therefore tend to be attracted to cultural exhibitions and respond warmly to suggestions that these might be staged. Aleppo is probably slightly more anxious to receive exhibitions than Damascus, where they are relatively frequent.”