Light from the Middle East: New Photography is a very intriguing exhibition currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Curated by Marta Weiss it showcases 30 artists from 13 Middle Eastern countries; a region that has been in political, social and economic turmoil for over half a century. The exhibition includes 87 works, a culmination of the collaboration between the British Museum and the V&A, and was made possible through the extensive funding of the Art Fund to develop a major collection of Middle Eastern photography. The photographs may be “new” to the Western exhibition-goers but the subjects they concentrate on are “ever-lasting”.
What comes to the mind of a European art-lover when the words “photography” and “Middle East” are used in the same sentence? Surely “war” is one of the first images that comes to mind, but also, (albeit rarely) one will recall the “richness of culture” and the “poverty of preservation” in these lands. In the opening section of the exhibition titled Recording we see the works of Iranian photo journalist Abbas and hold the unmatchable opportunity to understanding the conditions of humanity “on the other side of the world”. From Abbas’s gelatine silver-prints series titled, IranDiary (1978-79) we see “Hands dipped in the blood of the ‘martyrs’ call for revenge” in which two hand marks in red are positioned next to each other on a wall accompanied by writing in the same colour, blood red. A blood red carnation, a snow white carnation, a note written in ink all surface and bring the pains of dead sons, dead husbands and fathers to V&A’s walls. Even “martyrs” leave behind mourning relatives…
Speaking of mourning relatives, Newsha Tavakolian’s series Mothers of Martyrs (2006) implements an overwhelming sense of loss. As a self-taught artist Tavakolian really draws attention to a very crucial point as she presses the shutter release. That is, when the youth of a country is killed in conflict as “martyrs” or as “soldiers” the conflict doesn’t get resolved, it is perhaps further deepened because their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers will always remember the feeling of losing their beloved. A wound within a wound, the scar reopens as those left behind keep breathing.
In the second section of the exhibition titled Reframing works of Shadi Ghadirian appear in the forefront. In Iranian photographer Ghadirian’s series Qajar (1998), inspired by Qajar-era portraits, there is often a kind of wry humour. Dressed in a burqa and a niqab (hanging over the left-side of her head so the face is visible) a woman stands next to a Peugeot bicycle, two women once again dressed in burqas and niqabs holding a mirror in the direction of a bookcase, a covered woman standing with a basket in her hand that contains a small can of 7-Up and a larger can of Pepsi alongside what might be a can of imported beer. The backdrop in all of these photographs resonate a sense of depth, wealth and comfort, but they also reflect the day to day life of the photographer as a wife and working mother. As a habitant of Tehran, Ghadirian shows us that the photography produced by women is no less effective or professional than that produced by men in the Middle East, or for that matter, by men in the West.
In the final section titled Resisting we are introduced to the works of artists such as the Afghan writer, film director and photographer Atiq Rahimi, and the Turkish artist and photographer Şükran Moral. Rahimi’s works from the series The Imaginary Return (2002) in which he photographs his native city of Kabul in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban by utilising a primitive box camera. Rahimi’s six small-scale prints truly reflect the loss he felt when he re-visited his war-torn city in 2002, 18 years after fleeing Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of 1984. Şükran Moral’s massive work Despair (2003) lights Rahimi’s work from the opposite direction. Moral’s work tells the black and white story of immigrant workers on a boat with vary-coloured nightingales perched on their shoulders and sleeves. In Despair 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 nightingales.
In its unity the exhibition provides a sense of reality sharp as the serpent’s tongue. It doesn’t only provide an all-encompassing insight into the collective Middle Eastern culture but also displays, with great rigour, the use, implementation and adaptation of photography in view of political, social and philosophical ideology. Recording, Reframing and Resisting attest to the history of photography in three simple words just as much as explaining a history of the Middle East through a medium which has widely been accepted as “Western”.
Light from the Middle East: New Photography, until 7 April 2013, V&A Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL.
1. Saida in Green. Digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55 cm, 2000, Hassan Hajjaj, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.
2. The break, From the series Upekkha, 2011, Archival inkjet print, 60 x 90 cm, Nermine Hammam, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.
3.From the series Mothers of Martyrs, 2006, Digital c-print, 50 x 76 cm, Newsha Tavakolian, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.
4. From the series Qajar, 1998. Gelatin silver bromide print, 30 x 24 cm, Shadi Ghadirian, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.