JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white and color photographs and 8 text panels, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room back gallery space. The show includes 18 gelatin silver prints and 8 archival pigment prints, made between 2008 and 2010 and printed in 2015. The prints are available in two sizes – 20×20 (in editions of 5) and 5×5 (in editions of 5). A monograph of this body of work was published by Schilt Publishing in 2014 (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: There is something heart-wrenchingly open ended about the trauma of disappearance. While death itself has its own kind of finality and closure, having a loved one go missing offers a different kind of unfinished pain. Almost regardless of whether the circumstances surround runaways, wanderers, and absentee parents or the more menacing strains of kidnapping, abduction, and rendition, the resulting process for those left behind is remarkably similar – an endless, wearying search for elusive answers about the one who has vanished and an ongoing frustration with the often depressing lack of actionable information. It’s human nature to want to do something, to keep looking and make some kind of progress rather than to simply wait and hope.
For photographer Diana Matar, her personal version of this gnawing anguish came in the form of the politically-motivated kidnapping of her father-in-law. Jaballa Matar was a dissident former diplomat and Libyan Army officer who was taken from Cairo in 1990 and transported back to Libya to face the violent justice of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; he was apparently thrown into prison in Tripoli, tortured there, and never heard from again, aside from a single letter smuggled out. For Matar and her husband, not only were there the lingering questions of why, but even the more fundamental facts of what exactly had occurred and where/when it had happened were largely unknown. Thus began a six year project/journey that included trips to Libya and Italy in search of answers, the results of which evolved into a well-regarded photobook (published in 2014), inclusions in museum exhibitions, and ultimately to this first solo gallery show in New York.
While the photobook and gallery show are both titled Evidence, it is actually the maddening lack of concrete evidence that pervades her images, as nearly all of what she found was circumstantial and tangential rather than direct and verifiable. Her artistic challenge thus became to draw in the lines of a very personal narrative without a visible protagonist or many real specifics. What emerges is a series of elusive just-out-of-reach might-have-beens – a barred prison door her father-in-law may have walked through, a seatless chair he may have been forced to sit in, carvings on walls he may have made or at least seen, and shadowy buildings and perimeter walls at night where he may have been housed or tortured. All of these are captured as fleeting, ephemeral impressions and possibilities, seen in darkness and blur rather than crisp light-of-day clarity, and they effectively mimic the sense of absence she and her husband must have felt; it’s as if they could imagine him in these places (or feel his lost presence), and yet, he clearly wasn’t there anymore. Flares of a black sun, flapping pigeons, and snippets of text add layers of uncertain mystery to the storytelling mix.
A second group of photographs in color come at the disappearance problem from a different direction. In these works, Matar traveled to Rome and looked for locations where assassinations of Libyans had taken place. In each spot, she photographed an overhead tree (a stately palm, a scraggly thicket, or a dense green canopy), each one a mute witness to the violence, caught in the flash of the night. The symbolic parallelism of these pictures with her own personal story gives it some broader resonance, the effort to see indirect patterns in the common situations making the anguish more universal. There is both hollow wispy beauty in these moments and a darker grasping desperation lurking underneath.
The installation ends with a simple view of the sea, with a short explanation that many of the prisoners at Abu Salim had likely been killed, buried, and later dug up with cement mixers, their bodies pulverized into dust and dumped in the ocean, thereby permanently destroying any shred of identifiable proof from the victims. It’s a gruesome non-ending that offers only horrific imaginings, wrapped in the quiet serenity of the now ominous lapping waves.
Seen together, what Matar’s atmospheric images do best is set a particular mood of restless poignancy. There is heartbreak, and suffering, and agonizing anxiety here, all of it documented without resolution or conclusion. What she has created is an indirect, refracted mirror of the hand-wringing situation, where her fluid emotional state permeates the straws at which she and her husband have so persistently grasped. Both in book form and on the walls, it’s a lyrical example of non-linear photographic storytelling, where an intimate narrative is formed from loosely-connected moments and resonant impressions and tied together by a cohesive aesthetic sensibility.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3000 (20×20) and $1200 (5×5), based on size. Matar’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.