Personal History in Image and Artifact

Tarek Al-Ghoussein's latest creative work, a mixed-media presentation called K Files, is the autobiographical product of his unusual personal history: a Kuwaiti of Palestinian origin, he grew up largely in New York, Washington, DC, and Tokyo, and studied at NYU New York and in New Mexico. Before coming to NYU Abu Dhabi, he worked in Jordan, Cairo, and Sharjah.

An artist and professor of Visual Art at NYUAD, Al-Ghoussein has created and assembled K
, an exhibition following his personal and family history by means of self portraits and media artifacts relating to his family. The work has been seen in Dubai and is booked for New York.

Tarek's father, Talat Al-Ghoussein, was Kuwait's ambassador to the United States and the United Nations. In a family album at his parents' house, Tarek found newspaper clippings about them. A Buenos Aires Herald piece, almost 50 years old, shows Jacqueline Kennedy thanking Talat for a donation to her late husband's library: "Expressing her deep appreciation, Mrs. Kennedy requested the Ambassador to convey her thanks to the government and people of the State of Kuwait."

Another, from a 1965 Miami Herald, compares Kuwait to a West Texas boom town, and says "Ambassador and Mrs. Talat Al-Ghoussein give amusing dinners and dancing parties" at their home in Washington, DC. In K Files, the album pages with these clippings have been blown up to hang on the gallery wall.

Al-Ghoussein found some of the original newspaper photos for sale online. "It was strange to find these pieces of my past on sale on eBay," he said. For USD 6.69, for example, he bought one image showing his parents with the wife of Jordan's ambassador to the US. Al-Ghoussein chose not to unwrap these photos; their Aramex and US Postal Service envelopes, unopened, are displayed in a glass case.

The other part of K Files consists of 60-by-90-centimeter "performative" self portraits that Al-Ghoussein took last year in Kuwait, each showing an inconspicuous figure, dressed in black. One shows him in a reception site for state visitors; another where the British first drilled for oil; another in a high school. The young Al-Ghoussein lived in Kuwait for only three years, but remembers these locations.

What unites the elements of K Files is that "they are about a process of tracking" both personal history and historical developments in Kuwait, Al-Ghoussein explained. They also share visual elements: a painting of the first emir of Kuwait, seen in the background of a photo of his parents, also appears in a self portrait Al-Ghoussein made at the Kuwaiti stock exchange.

Last year, he was invited by the Kuwaiti government to represent that country at the Venice Bienniale. "It was nice to make a body of work in Kuwait," he said. "It was the first time I had done so." "It's true I am a Kuwaiti national, but I haven't lived there for 30 years. So it was a surprise to be asked."

His book, Transfigurations: Photographs of Tarek Al-Ghoussein, will be published in September 2014 by the British house Blackdog. Publication will coincide with a showing of K Files at New York's Taymour Grahne gallery.

Al-Ghoussein's path to K Files has not been direct. He studied photography as an undergraduate at NYU in New York and earned a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of New Mexico. He then spent a year shooting in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. "I made some so-called 'good pictures'," he said, but documentary photography "wasn't communicating what I wanted to deal with" — namely the refugees' sense of feeling uprooted. "I would show work to people in London and they would say, 'Look, they're not that poor, they have TVs.' And I'd say, 'Well, economic hardship is only one of the issues they encounter. The bigger problem is not having a homeland.'"

He moved to Egypt and taught for a year at the American University of Cairo. Then the Gulf War started in 1990. It was a time for re-assessment: Al-Ghoussein decided to step away from photography and found work as a desert guide and dive master in Egypt's Sinai. He did not take a photograph for four years. "In a sense I just wanted to forget what I had learned in graduate school," he said.

But seeing a photo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London left him "a bit nostalgic." So he submitted a hastily assembled portfolio to the museum's photography curator — who called almost immediately and offered to help arrange a UK visa. "My whole life switched like that," Al-Ghoussein marveled. "It was a bit surreal."

Later, during his 16 years teaching photography at the University of Sharjah, he began taking the staged self portraits that have allowed him to address concepts that his previous documentary work could not get at.

People began to notice. "I did a few self portraits that were shown at the Sharjah Museum. And things just seemed to take off from there. It's funny, you can be working in isolation for years and then, all of a sudden people start paying attention to your work."

Major institutions are looking, too. The British Museum recently acquired some K Filesphotographs, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston purchased work from In Beautification, a series documenting the development of Saadiyat Island.

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).