In the landmark photographic exhibition, “Light from the Middle East”, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the work of 30 Middle Eastern artists highlights complex situations and emotions through images taken from Afghanistan to Morocco.
Although photos from the Middle East are all too common, the person behind the camera is, more often than not, a Westerner, and this inevitably influences how the scene captured on film is portrayed. The beauty of “Light from the Middle East” is that it shows what are perhaps familiar themes in a totally new light.
“Many people who come to the exhibition have expectations that they will see journalist-style photos reflecting the recent conflicts,” says Marta Weiss, curator of the exhibition. “What is really striking is the way these Middle Eastern photographers are using the medium to express themselves and the thoughts of those in the images.”
Although the exhibition unites the work of artists from a huge geographical area, that is not where the ambitiousness of the show lies. What is remarkable is the drawing-together of a talented group of people who have used photography to create highly diverse works.
Increased interest in the work of Middle Eastern photographers prompted the decision to stage the exhibition of 87 photos at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “This is the first major exhibition of this type of material in the United Kingdom,” explains Weiss. “It was made possible through a grant by the Art Fund in 2009 to start collecting photography of this genre.” As works of art, many of the images by the 30 photographers have been enhanced through the use of collage, paint, burnt holes and double exposure. Images range in size from those taking up an entire wall to Polaroid-sized shots.
Walking through the exhibition divided into three sections — Recording, Reframing and Resisting — the most compelling images fuse politics with artistic aesthetics to great effect. The artists have taken images from their life and times and expressed them through the artistic response that is deep in their souls. Startling and sometimes disturbing images abound — memories of Beirut in happier days or Egyptian soldiers Photoshoped with gaudy colours and transplanted into the green meadows of the Swiss Alps.
Manal Al Dowayan, a Saudi Arabian artist represented with a number of photos, says that the objective of the exhibition is not to provide answers. “After viewing the exhibition, I’d like to see people go home with more questions than when they arrived,” she muses. “I hope that when the public interacts with my photos it starts a thought-provoking dialogue.”
The kaleidoscope of scenes, which in turn provoke an even greater spectrum of emotions and reactions from the viewers, comes in many guises. There is the iconic work of Magnum photographer Abbas documenting the unfolding revolution in Iran from 1978 to 1979 in his series “Iran Diary”. It comes across as a premonition to the recent Arab Spring. “I was there during the period from 1978 to 1980 and spent all my time documenting the revolution,” he explains. “I tried to get images of as many aspects of what was going on. I want this series of photos to create a three-dimensional picture.”
Egyptian photographer Nermine Hammam also focuses on the subject of upheaval capturing the spirit of young soldiers in Tahrir Square. Many of her images have a postcard-like quality, drawing a parallel between the spectacles of Tahrir Square to that of a tourist attraction.
In Iranian photographer Mehraneh Atashi’s compelling image of a local wrestler flexing his muscles in a traditional gymnasium, under the watchful eye of the various ayatollahs in the portraits hanging on the wall — ironically, a place which is off limits to women — the photographer’s presence is caught as a reflection in the corner of a mirror.
Reflecting on her images of women in Saudi Arabia, Al Dowayan says, “My collection was inspired by a speech that our founder, King Abdullah, gave when he took the throne. He invited all men and women to come together to build the country. There was enormous hope.” Inspired by this, Al Dowayan invited many women to come to her studio and be photographed in their job or profession. “You’ll see photos of female doctors, scuba-diving instructors, educators and women in every other profession available to them at the time,” she says.
Born in Lebanon, Walid Raad explores memories of the civil war from the time when he was a youth. As a recurring theme, he exhibits colourful prints of bombed-out cars. They contrast with the work by Parisian-Iranian Abbas, whose dramatic black-and-white images capture the spirit of the Iranian revolution and the anti-Shah demonstrations, complete with burka-clad women wielding guns.
There are also images which contradict established stereotypes. Shadi Ghadirian, who lives and works in Tehran, presents a photo in sepia — a veiled woman in a studio with a classically inspired painted backdrop. Although dressed in traditional Iranian robes, she is also wearing trendy Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Elsewhere in the gallery there is evidence of Western artistic trends through the manipulation of images via manual and digital techniques. Jowhara Al Saud challenges the Islamic ban on depicting faces by scratching them down to the emulsion and re-printing the outlined blanks to resemble cartoons. “I gravitate towards photos that carry some sort of emotional weight, even when stripped down,” she says. “The pieces I find most successful are at once ambiguous and familiar; they are portraits, but no longer completely recognisable.”
Resistance inspired the works in the series, “The Imaginary Return”, by Afghan writer, film director and photographer Atiq Rahimi Rahimi. They depict his native city of Kabul in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Using an old Box Brownie camera, Rahimi captures, with childlike purity, the loss he felt when he revisited his war-torn home in six small-scale and blurry prints.
The series “Despair” illuminates Rahimi’s work. It shows black and white immigrant workers on a boat with brightly-coloured nightingales perched on their shoulders and sleeves. In these haunting images the future is uncertain, yet there is a tiny speck of hope. The hope of emigration and “making it big” in another foreign country is alive in those colourful little birds.
There is a poignant sense of reality throughout the exhibition, quite often as sharp as the viper’s tongue. The images don’t only provide an all-encompassing insight into the collective Middle Eastern culture, but also display the use, implementation and adaptation of photography in view of political, social and philosophical ideology.
“Light from the Middle East”, through its themes of Recording, Reframing and Resisting, highlights the history of photography in three simple words as much as it explains the history of the Middle East through a medium which has widely been accepted as Western.
Scott Adams is a journalist based in Madrid.
“Light from the Middle East” is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until April 7.
IMAGE CREDITS ****IMAGE INFORMATION**** Title: ‘Bodiless I’ from the series ‘Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength)’ Artist: Mehraneh Atashi Date: 2004. Digital c-print, 76.5 x 112.5 cm Credit line: Copyright British Museum. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: Saida in Green. Digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55 cm Artist: Hassan Hajjaj Date: 2000 Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: ‘Airmail’, from the series ‘Out of Line’ Artist: Jowhara AlSaud Date: 2008. C-type print, 50.8 x 61 cm Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: ‘Wonder Beirut #13, Modern Beirut, International Centre of Water-Skiing’, from the series ‘Wonder Beirut’ Artist: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige Date: 1997-2006. C-print mounted on aluminium with face mounting, 70.5 x 105.4 cm Credit line: Courtesy of the artists and CRG Gallery, New York and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris. Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: From the series ‘Qajar’ Artist: Shadi Ghadirian Date: 1998. Gelatin silver bromide print, 30 x 24 cm Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: From the series ‘Mothers of Martyrs’ Artist: Newsha Tavakolian Date: 2006. Digital c-print, 50 x 76 cm Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: The break, From the series Upekkha, 2011 Artist: Nermine Hammam Date: 2011. Archival inkjet print, 60 x 90 cm Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography Title: Detail from the series ‘The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields’ Artist: Youssef Nabil Date: 2006. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print, 39 x 27 cm Credit line: Copyright British Museum. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography