REVIEW: Diana Matar @ Purdy Hicks Gallery

Written by NYPD on . Posted in London Photo Diary


In a quest for historic truth, Diana Matar has been documenting Libya and Egypt’s urban landscape. Her recent solo show at Purdy Hicks Gallery, Evidence, Disappearance, Witness and Still Far Away, follows the invisible figure of a disappeared man, whose mysterious fate is emblematic of Libya’s dark past.

In 1990, the artist’s father-in-law Jaballah, a Libyan political dissident, was kidnapped by the Egyptian secret service while in exile in Cairo. Matar journeyed to Libya and Egypt looking for traces. In the resulting work, his shadow appears throughout; we may never see his face, but his presence is palpable and bears the heavy burden of secrecy.

How can we photograph that which cannot be seen? The one who cannot be found? As the disappeared man’s life is brought to life in these images, so too is the country’s political and social story. Images of ghostly streets, Brassaï-like inscriptions on the city walls, leave us thirsty for clues. Here, the camera is both an instrument of investigation and a therapeutic aid; and the photographic medium’s presupposed veracity and capacity to render the truth, its most challenging quality. If it was instinct that guided the making of this work–so dependent on the artist’s family’s situation at the time–it includes an important reflection on the medium’s very nature: within a factual document, reality can only resonate. 

Tracing the ephemeral footsteps of anonymous victims, Matar records deserted buildings and streets where opponents of the Libyan regime were sequestrated. Sites that are now the silent and singular witnesses of voiceless events. The disturbing beauty of such documentation carries the very anxiety that it sprung from: the fear of seeing our forebodings confirmed. While the images are a constant reminder of what has presumably–or certainly–happened, we are not shown anything morbid; the accompanying texts provide these details. Through her sombre, quiet imagery, the artist collates evidence of the past and tells the moving tale of disappearance and political manipulation–the painful and constant wait, the inconsolable minds that know nothing.

The surreal night shots and quiet tableaux of the city allow for a variation of interpretation, a possible rebirth for the country and its damaged inhabitants. It is simply, perhaps, the embodiment of the impenetrable quality of passing of time and its eternal elements, unaffected by the horrors of history.

In her book Evidence Matar tells us about the fear that she and ‘H’ (Matar’s husband, Libyan writer Hisham Matar) lived in. Placed under surveillance by the regime, they received threats for their open criticism of the dictatorship. Today, they cannot return to Libya. The significance of her photographs has exposed dangerous views.

Jaballa is still missing. We know nothing.

-Céline Bodin


Diana Matar @ Purdy Hicks Gallery. Showing until 6 June 2016.

Image captions:

Diana Matar, Disappearance series, 2008.

Diana Matar, Evidence series, 2012

Diana Matar, Still Far Away series, 2012

Diana Matar, Witness series, 2012

BODIN_CV Céline Bodin is a French photographer. She graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris, and in 2013 she moved to London to complete a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, Céline works closely with London universities and galleries. Her photography practice revolves around the themes of identity and gender in the frame of Western culture, as well as landscape photography and the philosophy of the Sublime.