The Fussy Eye: Scarlett Coten’s Apolitical Portraits

Political upheaval always gets reduced to visual cliché. Thus the ’60s amounted to love beads, hippies, and peace signs. The Reaganite ’80s became yellow ties and brick-size cellphones. Today, over in the Middle East, it’s ISIS beheadings, Hamas banners, and suicide vests. French photographer Scarlett Coten was determined to expand that view of young Arab men of the apolitical and even hedonistic persuasion. On the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, and the West Bank, she acted like a talent scout for a modeling agency—identifying hipsters with a certain look, then posing them for formal portraits. Her impressive first U.S. show, Mectoub, in the Shadows of the Arab Spring, puns on the Arabic maktoub (roughly, “It is written”) and the French mec (dude or guy). Indeed, her subjects in these 30-odd photos appear to be entirely secular, the sort of guys who might be pulling your espresso or pouring your craft beer on Capitol Hill or in Williamsburg. These bros are totally chill, with tats and hairstyles—but no jihadi beards—that mark them as outlaws, sybarites, or champion video gamers. There’s a languorous quality of repose to Coten’s crew; these are guys who sleep through prayer sessions at the mosque, if they go at all. Unemployment may also account for the idle vibe: If there aren’t any jobs available, at least you can cultivate a defiant personal style. (The same is certainly true here in our depressed inner cities.) Coten is also reversing the usual street dynamic of men staring at women; against backdrops often dingy and decayed, she grants these mecs a wary kind of beauty. We’re not used to seeing them this way, nor are they accustomed to being given such a respectful aesthetic treatment. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, 608 Second Ave., 467-4927, Free. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat. Ends July 25.

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