Syria is a wreckage, its people bombarded by a psychotic former ophthalmologist. Egypt’s economy is in free-fall. The Arab Spring’s optimism has faded faster than a photograph bathed in the sunshine of a portrait studio’s front window.
Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East live with the constant threat of violence and terror. When stories flood media outlets, dead bodies boost ratings. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.) Given that language barriers exist, even in an age of Google Translate, it’s not so easy to just throw out a couple of friend requests to get the real story from Tehran. Or Tel Aviv.
Fortunately, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has come to our collective rescue. “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” displayed photographs from North Africa through Central Asia, until it closed on April 7. It was the most dynamic photo exhibition I saw on my recent visit to Europe.
The show was broken down into three component parts: Recording, Reframing, and Resisting. The first referred to documentary work, the second to images that attempted to subvert existing photo traditions, and the latter section dealt with more original or innovative art practice. Surprisingly, given my predilections, I mostly preferred the initial grouping. But there were strong projects throughout; a fantastic exhibition, really.
Walking through the entryway, I was confronted with a group of photos by Abbas, from the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. He managed to capture anger and passion pulsing through the frame, as in the grouping of women in abayas, toting machine guns. Another image featured a heap of dead old men on morgue beds, slid out of the cooler. (While some revolutionaries looked on, gloating.) The message from the curators was clear: We mean business.
Just down the way, Tal Shochat, an Israeli, exhibited a triptych of contemporary images that seemed to emanate from a different planet, as well as century, than those of Abbas. Three trees: persimmon, pomegranate, and grapefruit. Each had been meticulously cleaned and buffed, then shot in the landscape with strobes, against a black backdrop. They looked artificial, like corporatized nature. Smart and odd-looking, they referenced the intersection of agriculture and genetic engineering in the 21st C.
Cruising the room, I saw pictures from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kurdistan.
“Bodiless 1,” by Mehraneh Atashi, another Iranian, was an absolute favorite. A burly wrestler, in a mens’ only gym, throws around a chain of weights. (Old school equipment, for sure.) He had a serious head of hair, resembled Erik Estrada, and rocked a sexy-time mustache as well. The text tells us women are always excluded from such establishments, but the artist was, in fact, female. She received special permission, and included her own image as a little subversive shout to rule-breaking, reflected within a mirror.
A Mitra Tabrizian photo, again from Iran, was also amazing. (I’m just now realizing I like Iranian photography.) A long, horizontal panel depicted an obviously-staged scene filled with a host of “regular” people. Old and young, men and women, all stood, moved, talked, gesticulated, in a field outside of a generic apartment building. Up above, a pair of grumpy-looking clerics stared down, disapprovingly, from a billboard. (I wonder what they would approve of? Disemboweling Barack Obama?) Though I assumed it to be a digital composite, given how much was going on, the wall text assured that it was actually one exposure. Righteous people-wrangling.
In general, the Reframing section, which featured artists who appropriate or imitate images from the past, was the least successful. Most of the artists’ symbol choices were heavy-handed, so things were just off. (Close, but not quite right.)
Shadi Ghadirian’s project, yet again from Iran, typified this. Her series, “Qujar,” from 1998, featured women in portraits, shot in the historical style from the Qajar period, 1786-1925. The verisimilitude was spot on, but then the women held modern symbols, like a Pepsi can, a boom box, or a mountain bike. I wanted to love them, but kept getting stuck in the clunky juxtaposition. The one exception was the image of shrouded women holding a mirror that reflected blankly back to the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.
Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian, exhibited work from his project “The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields,” a series of hand-colored black and white portraits. The style aped mid-20th Century Egyptian studio portraits, and focused on the large ex-pat population in North England. I loved the hand-colored effect, and the guys were funny, but also poignant, like Gene Hackman’s sidekick in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (Yes, I’m aware Pagoda was Indian.)
One last project here deserves a mention, but not in a good way. Taysir Batniji, a Palestinian, had pictures included from his “Watch Towers: West Bank/Palestine” project. The structures were blatantly shot in the insanely-famous Becher style. Basically, they were knock-offs, meant to create controversy. When the first sentence in the wall text admits that the work is derivative, I wonder if it actually belongs in the show?
Moving on, my brain slowly wearing down, I entered the last room: Resisting. The collected photos were meant to examine the manipulation of truth in photography. The quality ranged, here, but there were some memorable projects.
Atiq Rahimi’s work, from Afghanistan, featured plastic box camera pictures, called “The Imaginary Return,” from 2001. The artist played with scale and temporal dislocation, so my eye wondered if the pictures were from the 19th Century. A tree branch looked like it was about to topple a building, little men at the base of a wall look like toy soldiers, and a lonely clothesline suspended above the chaos seems like it might be holding up the world.
Amirali Ghasemi’s series “Tehran Remixed: Party Series” was also terrific. We’ve all heard stories of what goes on behind the closed, locked doors of Tehran’s youth. (I’m guessing they love Ecstasy, but what do I know?) Here, we see the good times rolling, but big white sections have been cut out of the subjects, censoring their identities. It was a perfect use of digital technique, and reminded me why I was less enthralled with the exhibition’s mid-section, which placed less emphasis on stylistic innovation.
There was a bit more hand-coloring in the last room, but nothing that really impressed. Nermine Hammam, an Egyptian, had a project where she photographed soldiers who were ubiquitous during the aforementioned Arab Spring. Rather than keep them in their natural surroundings, however, she digitally removed them, and dropped them against the technicolor backdrops of the Swiss Alps. (I’m guessing the soldiers would have preferred to frolic in the mountains, rather than tote guns around Tahrir Square.)
As I said at the outset, this was a really stellar exhibition. We often struggle, here in the West, to remind ourselves why art matters. A few rooms such as these, packed with photographs that attempt to codify uncertainty, document upheaval, and share stories with the World outside, are an excellent reminder.