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Photo Exhibition Highlights Racism Against Lebanese of African and Asian Heritage

Woman looking at photographs from the Mixed Feelings exhibition at AltCity, September 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

Woman looking at photographs from the Mixed Feelings exhibition at AltCity, September 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska (used with permission)

This post was originally published on Lebanon-based blog Hummus For Thought. The following is a shortened version.

A new exhibition seeks to tell the story of Lebanese of African and Asian heritage as well as tackle racism in Lebanon.

The “Mixed Feelings” exhibition, the brainchild of Lebanese Nigerian researcher and activist Nisreen Kaj and Polish photographer and artist Marta Bogdanska, has involved several key members of Lebanon’s civil society as well as several NGOs in highlighting the oft-ignored daily realities of Lebanese of African or Asian heritage as well as migrant workers who work in Lebanon.

Kaj and Bogdanksa introduced the project, which will tour Lebanon, as being two-fold. The first, “Mixed Feelings: Racism and ‘Othering’ from a Lebanese Perspective,” includes 33 photos of Lebanese who are of African or Asian heritage. About a third of the participants were interviewed, and quotes in Arabic and English discussing topics such as race and national belonging accompany the photos.

The second part of the project is still in the works. 

As for the what motivated them to create “Mixed Feelings,” Kaj and Bogdanska explained:

Renee Abi Saad from Jisr Qade. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

Renee Abi Saad from Jisr Qade. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

So, the main motivation of the project is to talk about racism, simply. Racism is an important issue that is rarely directly addressed within and by civil society movements in Lebanon and around the world, yet it is an issue that definitely needs to be understood and defined within its time- and geographic- specific context, and then addressed accordingly.

If you look at Lebanon, we have around 250,000 migrant domestic workers (in an overall workforce of 1.45 million, and this figure is estimated to be higher), primarily women from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Madagascar and a number of West African nations. This is a significant number of people who provide much needed services, who live here, who develop relationships here, who have families here, who assimilate, integrate, spend, earn, etc. They are very much part and parcel of Lebanon, and are a significant part of the country’s ethno-scape.

Yet, due to a number of factors – such as socio-economic status; doing what is perceived as dirty work; being perceived as foreign / outsiders / ‘others’; and gender-related vulnerabilities – these women and associated social groups frequently find themselves marginalized and excluded, facing racism and racialization, all of this which sometimes leads to tragic consequences (such as suicides, and physical, sexual, mental and psychological abuses).

They went on to explain how deep racism runs in Lebanese society:

Audience member looks at a picture that was presented to the public during the panel discusion at IFI in AUB, October 8, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

Audience member looks at a picture that was presented to the public during the panel discusion at IFI in AUB, October 8, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

Furthermore, classism is usually tied to negative stereotyping and has become the excuse for “race” based discrimination in the country, a “we don’t have a racism problem, we just don’t want to swim with a maid or housekeeper, regardless of her nationality” way of thinking, where you have these class divisions (that are also very unacceptable) based on perceived “racial identifiers”, which is actually then racism, and which also demonstrates how racism is about intersectionality, about intersecting oppressions, and not just about “skin color”.

In addition to this “classism, not racism” discourse, you also have a discourse on racism in Lebanon that is very much an ‘us’ versus ‘the outsiders’ narrative; so we have the existence of two seemingly homogeneous and separate units – us the Lebanese and them the outsiders – that leaves little or no room to explore any other position or experience with racism in the country. 

Photography as the project's medium was carefully chosen for maximum impact, they said:

Audience listening to the discussion at AltCity on Sep 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

Audience listening to the discussion at AltCity on Sep 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

[Photography] is accessible to everyone and it talks to you immediately, without words. We want to confuse people a little bit in the beginning: to make then ponder about who are the people in these photographs at first and then to realize and think. It is an awareness project but because all the participants are recognizable it becomes also intimate and personal.

This year, with the traveling exhibition that goes from one place to another, we are also trying to build a community around the project, which is starting to work out. A lot of people speak about it and we are getting positive feedback.

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