Personal becomes political in this hall of mirrors

The V&A’s reflective new exhibition of Middle Eastern photography brings a heterogeneous region into focus, says Shahidha Bari

November 15, 2012

Credit: Newsha Tavakolian/From the series Mothers of Martyrs 2006

Life through a lens: a portrait from Newsha Tavakolian’s Mothers of Martyrs series

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Until 7 April 2013

Quietly wry and reserved, Ahmed Mater’s 2012 series, mysteriously titled Magnetism, makes for a head-scratching moment in the middle of the V&A’s explorative exhibition of contemporary photography, Light from the Middle East.

Spare and simple, Mater’s aerial photograph of diminutive pilgrims encircling the holy Ka’bah (the sacred shrine at the heart of the Great Mosque at Mecca), reveals itself on closer inspection to be a mocked-up architect’s model, a trail of iron filings spiralling around a black cube to which they are magnetically drawn. Veering dangerously towards the blasphemous, the image is brought back from the brink by a crooked humour and the respectful deference with which it is gently underwritten. Lightness and gravity are beautifully commingled here.

Supplication is simple and its representation ought to be so too, Mater seems to say in his rendering of pilgrims prostrated with iron resolution, not gilded by gold. The image riffs on the absurdity of scale, minute filings filling in for masses of people, the magnetism of Mecca as real as it is figurative - ironic in every sense. There is no other image like it in the collection but this is the exhibition’s particular merit: a disparate gathering of work that speaks in its different registers, tones and hues of the sheer heterogeneity of the places, people and histories it seeks to depict.

This notion of the Middle East as a location that is both readily recognisable and easily mistaken is the concern of the V&A’s major new exhibition. Thoughtfully arranged, the collection is excitingly discursive in the complex sense of place it imparts. Showcasing the work of 30 artists from 13 countries across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, the selection is discerning rather than merely demonstrative, and indicative of the quality and complexity of the creative output of the region, its range extending from reportage of the Iranian revolution of 1979 to digital montages of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Exquisite, atmospheric monochromes hang adjacent to glamorous large-scale prints of garish, broad-stroked colour. The contributions are varied in technique and temperament but often, curiously, in conversation with each other: Youssef Nabil’s decorative portraits of The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields, for instance, mirror the Iranian women of Shadi Ghadirian’s ornate Qajar series.

From the outside, the collection might easily be dismissed as voguish opportunism, presenting yet another voyeurist’s venture into the Arab Spring, but that would be to overlook the considered trajectory of which it is a part. After the British Museum’s Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East (2006), Modern Art Oxford’s Out of Beirut (2006) and the retrospective Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings at the Whitechapel Gallery (2010), this latest effort is the culmination of a long line of carefully curated projects concerned with the emergent visual cultures of the region. The collection presents a long view of the late 20th century in the Middle East and the complex political life of which the Arab Spring is only its most recent aspect. That so much of the content is so evidently inflected by political concerns is itself provocative; there is no clear distinction here between works of photojournalism and photographic art but a profound sense of the impossibility of extricating the political from the aesthetic.

In the handsome accompanying catalogue, the curator Marta Weiss notes that these photographers engage in the work of “recording, reframing and resisting” the worlds from which they come. No one here labours under the illusion that photography in this part of the world can bear solely an aesthetic load. It both records and subverts the realities it represents. There are a fair number of female photographers represented in the exhibition, and several images of veiled women: none perhaps as arresting as Manal Al-Dowayan’s half-hidden Saudi woman in I Am An Educator, whose insistent affirmation is undiminished by her veiling. It is certainly striking how frequently the images reach towards something like a meta-criticism, photographers taking photographs of photographs, as though conceding that the social and political place of this medium might in itself present a problem upon which these artists are compelled to reflect.

The image by Iranian photojournalist Abbas, Rioters burn a portrait of the Shah as a sign of protest against his regime, Tehran, December 1978, is self-explanatory, and the heat and fervour of its crowding men are as palpable as the fire they stoke. Anyone who has travelled in the region would immediately recognise the curious particularity of those gaudy poster-portraits of political leaders, so assiduously glued to every wall and so readily vandalised. Less familiar, perhaps, is Newsha Tavakolian’s sobering series Mothers of Martyrs; the plain portraits of chador-clad women clutching framed photos of sons killed in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) impart their quiet strength. Somehow, the stillness of a photograph gives to these women their due dignity; their grief, immovable and unspoken, makes for difficult viewing.

The photographers across the exhibition are largely unobtrusive presences, so admirably in the service of the subjects they are seeking to capture that their images rarely betray any trace of ego, except that their concern is so often photography itself and the complicated relationship that ordinary people have with the images of their daily lives.

This fraught relationship with images is one that the artists of this exhibition recurrently meditate upon and which the collection itself points up with particular conscientiousness. Venetia Porter, who is assistant keeper of Islamic art at the British Museum and has given a gallery talk on the exhibition, notes that the Persian term for photography comes from “aks”, meaning “reflection”, and “to have one’s photograph taken” from “aks andakhtan”, “to throw one’s reflection”. This is an exhibition that is adept both at tracking the subversions of that “thrown reflection” and at throwing back a counter-reflection in turn. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s incongruously cheery postcards from Beirut present popular touristic images of the Corniche, buckled and warped from deliberate heat exposure. War-torn Beirutis in particular seem to have a keen sense of the inadequacies of a photographic medium not equal to the experience of their recent history. Disillusionment is an uneasy burden borne by those behind the camera, but curled, faded and distorted as the photographs are, their damaged impermanence, indeed the very ephemerality of the form itself, becomes somehow exactly expressive of such precarious existences.

And yet, there are moments in this collection when politics seems to recede from view. The joy of Tal Shochat’s achingly lovely uplit trees is that they seem to exist in a frame of their own, solitary, sufficient unto themselves and separable from the iniquities of any intrusive reality. Their dreamy illumination against stilled night skies lends to them an unreal and authorless quality, effortlessly bearing up their exotic plenitude, the Grapefruit, the Persimmon and the Pomegranate somehow distinct from any trees we might know. But Shochat is ruthlessly truthful, too, about the careful artifice of the images and the unreal idyllic abundance that both symbolises and strikes out her relationship to the state of Israel.

Beauty here is not blotted by the brutality of occupation and invasion. Indeed, the gentle work of many of the photographs in this collection is to speak of how, amid ongoing catastrophe, human beings must live as though such things do not exist, moment by moment, tree by tree. At their best, these photos disclose such worlds within worlds - the vague comedy of Mehraneh Atashi’s Tehranian wrestlers, the closed circle within which Issa Touma’s Sufidrummers and dancers are immersed, the stark, silent grief of the women in Waheeda Malullah’s Light. This is a collection full of thoughtful, probing and intelligent pieces. Of them all, however, it is the calm, faded, hauntingly gutted spaces of Atiq Rahimi’s Kabul, staggeringly broken and beautiful, from which it is hardest to walk away.

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