“Performing Self, Performing Other”: Celebrating World Photography Day

The Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens Contemporary Creative Program celebrates World Photography Day 2021 by introducing an exciting new body of lens-based works created by our 2019 Contemporary Creative Resident, Dr. Sary Zananiri.

Sometimes an artist’s research takes time to percolate whilst on a creative residency.  This body of work is an example of just that. These remarkable images, and the research that informs them, had its inception in 2019 in the library at the Byzantine Museum in Athens where Dr. Zananiri was working on the creative research project that brought him to Athens, where he now lives.


Sary Zananiri Performing self, performing other (2020 – ) 1
Ed of 10 + 1 AP
Digitally manipulated Carte de Visite photographs sourced from Palestinian family archives
Figure 1. 20 x 12.5 cm

The emergence of scholarly and archaeological institutes in late 19th and early 20th century Palestine – often vested in the Christian histories of the region – produced knowledge by both scholars in region as well as others who visited with support from these newly established institutions. 

One example of such research in the 19th century focused on late antique Christian mosaics in Palestine and Jordan , especially  a number that had been altered during the 7th century shift from Byzantine to Umayyad rule.  These early studies revealed that the tesserae – the small tiles that make up the mosaics – had been lifted and re-laid to remove the figures of animals, replacing them with patterns or designs of foliage. 

Western scholars of the 19th century attributed the re-laying of mosaics to the imposition of Muslim proscriptions against the depiction of figures.  Later comparisons with Umayyad art of the same period, which often featured both animal and human figures, has debunked earlier Orientalist theories of Islamic imposition upon Christian art.

Around the turn of the 20th century a number of studio photographers in Jerusalem, Jaffa and other cities began to offer portraits with sitters wearing what was couched as ‘traditional’ costume.  These costumes were versions of clothing worn in villages or by Bedouins, however the costumes were often manufactured for the market rather than being traditionally produced. 

Sary Zananiri Performing self, performing other (2020 – ) 2
Ed of 10 + 1 AP
Digitally manipulated Carte de Visite photographs sourced from Palestinian family archives
Figure 2. 12.7 x 20 cm

This costuming phenomenon, often described as ‘cultural crossdressing’ and analysed primarily as an Orientalist phenomenon, was initially targeted at Western tourists and visitors to the region.  Significantly, less scholarly attention has been paid to the local Arab and Armenian population’s participation in the practice. 

The act of donning ‘traditional’ clothing for Palestinians was in fact a transgressive act, not so much from a cultural perspective, as with their western counterparts, but in terms of class.

The misconstrual of such images today, as authentic visions of ‘the Orient’, speaks to a lack of understanding of the modern urban middle classes who commissioned and sat for the photographs.  Indeed, a matrix of class and modernity (both as a lived experience and ideological framework) distanced these urban middle-class Palestinians from such costumes that, by this period, were seen as the purvey of the rural or the working classes.

The motivations for Palestinians to commission such photographic portraits is currently a topic of Dr Zananiri’s scholarly research elsewhere.  Several factors have already been identified.

  • Firstly, these portraits might relate to a growing idea of nationalism within the context of the Nahda (the Arab cultural Renaissance). 
  • Given gendered cross-dressing is sometimes documented in this photographic genre, there is a queering of gender and a context of humour.
  • There is also a defining and articulation of a modern, middle-class self occurs through the conscious transgression of class divides. 
  • Within the context of the modern tourism industry and the Western up-take of the practice, a nuanced cultural understanding of Western perceptions is detectable, in which Western expectations of ‘the Orient’ are subverted, again supporting a context of humour.

The pixilation of figures in this new series of photographic works disrupts the act of spectatorship, obscuring faces and bodies, but it also references the tesserae of the late antique mosaics.  It questions how archaeological or ethnographic knowledge is generated – ostensibly modern, objective and academic – and the ways such knowledge has coloured popular perceptions in the West.

Performing self, performing other reflects on the historical understanding and misconstrual of the region, particularly in times of great cultural and political change.  The original photographs are drawn from family archives shortly after the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, which marked the end of Ottoman rule.  Similarly, the re-laying of the church mosaics demonstrate the shift from Byzantine to Umayyad rule.  By conjuring the mosaics through pixilation, this series attempts to draw longitudinal correlation between Palestinian bodies, their effacement and periods of rapid cultural change.  In so doing, there is a layering of the very modern preoccupation with the past.

Sary Zananiri is an artist and cultural historian.  He completed a PhD in Fine Arts at Monash University (2014) looking at the biblified colonial imaging of the Palestinian landscape from 1839 to 1948.  His research interests sit at the intersection of colonialism, indigeneity, religious narrative and visual culture. He exhibits and curates widely, examples include the Rijksmuseum Oudheden (2020), and Der Haus Der Kunst der Welt, Berlin (2019). Recent publications include Imaging and Imagining: Photography and Social History in British Mandate Palestine (Brill, 2021) and European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine: Between Contention and Connection (Palgrave McMillan). He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at Leiden University.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au