Mectoub at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle, WA (Installation Notes by Mark Auslander, Central Washington University)

Friday, April 8, 2016

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 gave media visibility to courageous struggles by Muslim men and women in the Mediterranean world to reclaim the public sphere and exercise their democratic rights against violent forces of repression.  Much less is known about their interior struggles for dignity, joy, beauty, and self-fulfillment—in a rapidly changing, often precarious world.

Since 2011, Scarlett Coten has worked with urban Arab men across the region, from Morocco to Palestine, situating them in interior spaces.  She titles the series “Mectoub” (Mektoub), a word in Arabic literally meaning “It is written.”  The term, sometimes translated as “Fate” or “Destiny,” can also be understood in the sense of a profound personal journey of discovery, the goals and contours of which are rarely revealed to the traveler at the outset.  

Coten’s work is framed by a critical knowledge of the long history of Western Orientalist photography, in which Arab women in particular have been depicted as exotic, desirable, and forbidden “subjects” of the European camera.  In Mektoub, men at times stretch out on divans in ways that play on the “Odalisque” genre in Western art, in which beautiful women of the “East” were displayed presenting themselves for the eroticized pleasure of the male gaze.Yet, the men in Cotten’s images are hardly compliant or subordinate; they stare back at the camera with pride, strength, and defiance. At times, they appear to look beyond the camera or the photographer, towards a still-uncharted future. Towards their Mektoub. Their journey. Their fate.