Magazine article Art Monthly

Light from the Middle East: New Photography

Magazine article Art Monthly

Light from the Middle East: New Photography

Article excerpt

V&A Museum London 13 November to 7 April

Months after Edge of Arabia's conflicting '#COMETOGETHER' (Reviews AM361), another exhibition of so-called Middle Eastern art has opened, this time from a major museum. Conflicted is the defining quality here; this is the sensation that the exhibition 'Light from the Middle East' elicited within most viewers that I have surveyed and, likewise, the very notion of 'conflict' itself is the major curatorial theme for this selection. Curator Marta Weiss argues that, first and foremost, this is an exhibition about photography culled from a joint collection acquired by the V&A and the British Museum with the support of the Art Fund. Yet she has chosen to divide it into three categories - Recording, Reframing and Resisting - and begins her introductory essay by discussing how the 'immediacy of photography is ideal for artists confronting social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East'.

Weiss isn't naive. Through the lengthy process of having to acquire these works, she has come across many critics, such as Nat Muller - whom she quotes - who contest notions of a 'Middle East', of representational geography and ethnicity in curating. Nevertheless, Weiss returns to the fact that she works at a museum and, for the sake of collecting, museums, like many major international film festivals, continue to derive their curatorial strategy from neocolonial frameworks that emphasise the territorial rootedness of the acquired material. Is the desert-sand colour palette used for the accompanying catalogue an unfortunate coincidence?

'Light from the Middle East', despite being a relatively small museum show, uses all the language of a survey exhibition, dubbing itself 'the first major exhibition of Middle Eastern photography'. As part of the exhibition's London-wide marketing campaign, the Underground currently plays host to large-scale posters of a woman in the Islamic hijab or head dress. This image, by the Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian, also serves as the exhibition's catalogue cover. It is taken from her series 'Qajar', 1998, a group of restaged photographs inspired by studio photographs taken during the Qajar period in Iran, 1786-1925. The signature sepia-tinted photo, of a veiled woman wearing sunglasses and posing against a painted backdrop, speaks to all the expectant desires of the colonial admirer. Ironically, Ghadirian was one of the most prominent artists in the Saatchi Gallery's much-chastised 'Unveiled' exhibition from 2009 - an exhibition criticised by many of the writers who Weiss quotes in her catalogue essay.

The show is bookended by two revolutions: the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Egyptian revolution of 2011. It begins thematically by presenting the photographer Abbas's Hands dipped in the blood of the 'martyrs' call for revenge, 1979, part of his 'IranDiary', 1978-79 - a collection of photojournalistic representations of the dramatic events of the Iranian revolution - and ends with the work of visual artist Nermine Hammam, whose over-saturated photos of Egyptian soldiers are perhaps indicative of the gentler side of the post so-called 'Arab Spring'.

Elsewhere, Newsha Tavakolian presents 'Mothers of Martyrs', 2006, a portrait series featuring Iranian women holding photos of their sons who died in the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-88. This bleakness is filtered by the more allegorical Bricks, 2003/11, by Yto Barrada before jumping back to the contentious with the work of Waheeda Malullah. …

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