Within the Frame

The first major museum show of photography from the region commonly called the Middle East deals mostly with predictable themes, but often reveals fresh techniques and insights

"The Break" from Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam’s series Upekkha (2011). Inspired by the country’s recent civil unrest, the series combines hand-painted subjects with digitally manipulated photographs. © ART FUND COLLECTION OF MIDLE EASTERN PHOTOGRAPHY AT THE VA AND THE BRITISH MUSEUM
01 March, 2013

AT THE VICTORIA & Albert Museum’s Porter Gallery, which is small and intimate, I ended up accidentally trailing an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman and his young, suavely dressed student. I couldn’t help it; we were attending Light from the Middle East: New Photography, looking at photographs on display in almost exactly the same order. At one point, we were gazing at Israeli artist Tal Shochat’s Persimmon, Pomegranate and Grapefruit—where she applies the conventions of studio portraiture to photographing trees whose leaves and fruit are carefully dusted and polished to a shine.

“Look at the pomegranate,” said the gentleman.

His young friend obediently furrowed his brows.

“The weight of history, dropping so heavily from its branches.” He pointed to the swollen, ruby-red fruit, glistening artificially in the light.

His companion nodded thoughtfully.

It’s a conversation that reminded me of what American photographer Ansel Adams said, of how unpeopled photographs always have two people—the photographer and the viewer. It set off a series of questions in my mind about the relationship between what was displayed on the walls and the (largely Western) audience that viewed them. Did the exhibition seek to dismantle and deconstruct preconceived notions about the ‘Middle East’ or pander to them? Did it reflect, as happens so often at these institutionalised shows, the mainstream ideas of a particular view of that part of the world?

THE V&A CLAIMS THAT Light from the Middle East is the first major museum show of its kind, bringing together 30 artists from the region spanning north Africa to central Asia. Put together by Marta Weiss, the curator of photography at the V&A, the exhibition attempts to cover creative responses to the social challenges and political upheavals that have shaped the Middle East over the past 20 years. It is organised thematically into three sections, Recording, Resisting and Reframing, a division I wouldn’t have treated with suspicion if so many images couldn’t easily have fit into more than one section. Almost every work in the Porter Gallery could be interpreted as an act of ‘resistance’.

The exhibition opens with prints by Abbas Attar, arguably the best-known photographer of the group, and the first non-Western photographer to become a ‘full member’ of Magnum, in 1985. From 1978 to 1980, Attar photographed the revolution in his home country, Iran, to which he returned in 1997 after 17 years of voluntary exile in Paris. Taken from Iran Diary—a critical interpretation of Iranian history, which Attar documents as a personal journal with text and images—the eight monochrome photographs in the show are moving chronicles of Tehran’s revolution-stricken, politically charged streets. Not only do they bear witness to dramatic events but they are also self-reflexive, acknowledging the power of the photographic image. Attar captures protestors burning an image of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—the self-proclaimed “King of Kings”—during the time when the Shah’s rule provoked anger both in religious leaders who feared losing their traditional authority, and in students and intellectuals seeking democratic reforms. In another image, photographs of victims of SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal secret police—Iran’s most feared and hated institution that reportedly tortured and murdered thousands of the Shah’s opponents—are displayed outside the American embassy in Tehran. With his unflinching eye, Attar also captures the inside of a morgue—the corpses of four generals surrounded by revolutionaries, rifles in hand.

In dramatic contrast, in terms of colour and posturing, are Iranian artist Newsha Tavakolian’s works from her series Mothers of Martyrs. Here, too, the photographic image is imbued with unprecedented power, albeit of memory and love. These double portraits show elderly Iranian women facing the camera holding framed photographs of their sons who died decades earlier, in the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. One of the soldiers is remarkably young, and, as the artist notes, the men “will always stay the same” while their mothers age. The images conjure Susan Sontag’s words from On Photography on how photographs turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. For the mothers, their sons’ portraits become tangible objects of remembrance, a theme that writer Marianne Hirsch explores in Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. These images, these “pointed signifiers of loss” as Hirsch calls them, are important for the way in which they are layered with meaning through familial gazes—people who look at family photographs acknowledge bonds formed by lineage, mutual roots and facial resemblances, which consolidate relations that may be generations apart, or in this case, removed by death.

Abbas Kowsari, an Iranian, also offers a portrait within a portrait. His photograph of a peshmerga (Kurdish combatant) is so tightly framed that it excludes his face. Instead, the composition is centrally filled by the face of rock star Bryan Adams printed on the soldier’s sweatshirt. Unfortunately, the poignancy of the image seems to be undermined by the banality of the accompanying text: “The contrast reinforces the incongruity between warfare in northern Iraq and western pop culture.” While objects on display might form the primary source of information in an exhibition, there are also what Gillian Rose, author of Visual Methodologies, calls “textual technologies” that affect the way we read images, what we focus on or disregard as unessential. Labels, catalogues, plaques, these “apparently innocuous pieces of information” actually “work to prioritize certain sorts of information about images over others”. In a show that could so easily fall prey to being interpreted through a certain lens, coloured by preconceived notions, it is imperative that the accompanying text be suitably nuanced and sensitive. The blurb on the main panel at the entrance to the show, for example, is also strangely simple-minded—“Photography is a powerful and persuasive means of expression.” Sometimes, the labels impose aesthetic value on images that seemingly lack the quality. Photographs from Waheeda Malullah’s series Light are called “complex studies in form, light and shadow” when they are intriguing not because of their “stylised compositions” but for the questions her actions provoke. In her photographs, Malullah lies down next to tombs in Bahrain, thereby exaggerating the Shi’I Muslim custom of seeking blessing by touching the tombs of revered people, and also questioning the troubled relationship between Muslim women and their right to access Islamic spiritual spaces.

Syrian Issa Touma and Saudi Arabian Ahmed Mater both approach the spectacle of crowds in the throes of worship, but through vastly different techniques. Photographed over 10 years, Touma’s pictures of Sufi pilgrims in northern Syria on al-Ziyara, their annual procession day, are infused with drama and immediacy. He places himself within the midst of swarming devotees visiting a holy marabout’s shrine, who are shot at close range performing music, dance, song and mystical rituals. The culmination of the procession is the mortification of flesh—a self-inflicted wounding which is seen as an extreme act of faith. In one image, a man is pierced through his stomach by a steel rod, in another, dancers swirl in a trance inches from the lens. In Mater’s “Magnetism I” and “Magnetism II”, a crowd of pilgrims appears to circle the Ka’ba, the sacred building at the heart of the Masjid-al-Haram at Mecca. On closer inspection, they are revealed to be, in fact, iron filings spiralling around a black, cube-shaped magnet. Mater’s work was included at the British Museum’s Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam in early 2012, where he explained that magnetism serves as a fitting analogy to the spiritual force that Muslim believers feel during the Hajj. Abdulnasser Gharem, also from Saudi Arabia, evokes a crowd by their very absence: “The Path (Siraat)” shows a bridge in Southern Saudi Arabia, on which a group of villagers took shelter from a flood but were drowned when the bridge collapsed. Gharem spray-painted the word “siraat” repeatedly, like a mantra, on the repaired site; in the Qu’ran, the word refers to the path to God.

MANY OF THE ARTISTS fuse politics with aesthetics, seeking to disturb notions of reliability, objectivity and ‘truth’ when it comes to portraying their homelands. Mitra Tabrizian, an Iran-born photographer, records everyday scenes that are carefully staged. “Tehran 2006” shows a disparate group of people—non-professional models, ordinary people who play themselves—who appear to be going about their everyday lives in a residential area on the outskirts of the city. Their environment seems soulless and without working infrastructure, devoid of roads, streetlights and gardens. Looming above them is a billboard of Ayatollah Khomeini. In a separate darkened room, Jananne Al-Ani’s “Shadow Sites II”, a video composed of a series of aerial views, plays on a loop to the eerie soundtrack of a stormy wind. Al-Ani’s images are presented without explanation and the scale of the landscapes are difficult to interpret. The photographs of the desert, showing it as a place of habitation rather than an unoccupied wilderness, could be a lunar landscape or a microscopic view of a wooden table. They nudge us not only to admitting our inability to interpret the physical spaces of Al-Ani’s homeland but also towards the limitations of photography.

Walid Raad, a Lebanese photographer, openly challenges the systems that uphold the ‘truth-telling’ abilities of photographs. As John Tagg argues in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, applying Foucault’s ideas on dominant discourses, certain institutional apparatuses such as police forces, prisons, asylums and newspapers build a discourse surrounding the authority of images. Through The Atlas Group, Raad questions the authenticity and motives of governmental and academic archives. His fictional archive—a 15-year project involving photography, video and texts—is a collection of ‘documents’ relating to the contemporary history of Lebanon. On display is “Notebook Volume 38: Already Been in a Lake of Fire (Plates 63–64)”, comprising pages from the notebooks of a fictional historian named Dr Fakhouri who kept a log of every car used as a car bomb during the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990. Clashes between Palestinian-Muslim forces and Phalangists (mainly supported by Maronite Christians), complicated by Syria and Israel’s dubious interventions, claimed over 150, 000 lives and left Lebanon in ruins. Lebanese artist duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who collected tourist postcards of pre-civil war Beirut that they found for sale after the war ended, also invent a fictional photographer, named Abdallah Farrah. In 1968, Farrah was commissioned by the government tourist board to create postcard views of Beirut’s attractions, and he burns the negatives to reflect the violence and destruction around him. The artists present these works, distorted, malformed and disfigured, as prints from Farrah’s damaged negatives. Iranian photographer Taraneh Hemami also questions authoritative ‘regimes of truth’ that use photographs in their pursuit of justice. “Most Wanted” is based on mug shots downloaded from the FBI website shortly after 9/11. Hemami digitally manipulated the faces to erase any identifying features, thus leaving behind blurry outlines and sparse visual information such as headscarves and beards that suggest western stereotypes of Muslims.

IT WAS NO SURPRISE TO see that the other major theme running through Light from the Middle East was the place of women in Arab societies. Manal al-Dowayan’s portraits of two women titled “I Am an Educator” and “I am a Saudi Citizen,” bear the contradictions quite elegantly. The sitters, both of whom have successful careers, are photographed wearing weighty traditional clothes and heavy jewellery. The former carries a slate saying ‘Ignorance is darkness’ while the rest of the Arabic saying (‘Knowledge is light’) is omitted. In Qajar, Shadi Ghadirian, a leading Iranian photographer, also addresses how women are forced to negotiate their way through conflicting paths. The series is based on studio portraiture made during Iran’s Qajar dynasty between 1786 and 1925. Ghadirian’s portraits show women, against similarly stylised backdrops, who wear costumes that approximate Qajar fashion—headscarves and short skirts worn over baggy trousers, and thickly defined, black eyebrows—yet the objects they pose with are dissonantly modern and Western, such as a mountain bike, a 1980s-style stereo, a can of beer and Pepsi. The subject is handled with delicacy and humour, and if you haven’t yet tired of seeing Ghadirian’s work in countless photography shows that in some way touch upon women or the Middle East, the photographs offer a thought provoking, sepia-tinted experience. Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh also attempts to appropriate images from the past to make statements about the present, but does not quite achieve the desired effect. In a large-scale photograph, “Who Will Make Me Real?”, she wraps her body in Palestinian newspapers, and poses approximately like a classical European nude. While no one can doubt the sincerity of her message, the image is unintentionally comic. Moroccan-born Hassan Hajjaj, who culls inspiration from fashion photography, attempts to playfully juxtapose global brand names and local, traditional motifs such as veils and babouches (Moroccan slippers). “Saida in Green” is a portrait of a woman whose head scarf is embossed with the familiar Louis Vuitton motif. “Jam Fna Angels” (probably inspired by “Charlie’s Angels”), shows four burqa-clad women in babouches striking a pose in an alleyway. Hajjaj’s work is provocative, yet the issue of objectification of a female body alongside a fashion accessory or a prop does not seem to be explored in these images.

A PREOCCUPATION THAT RUNS through Middle East photography, from the early days of documentary by the British and the French in the 18th and early 19th centuries to the modern, more personal interest in belonging and homeland, is one of geographical space. The Oxford Companion to Photography explaines that “early photography in the region was motivated initially by fascination with the monuments of antiquity, by the pious reconnaissance of Palestine (the Holy Land); and by Western interest in an exotic ‘East’ subsumed under the rubric of Orientalism.” Now, contemporary concerns seem to touch heavily upon land as a contested space, a site of political conflict and reconfigured borders. For his Watchtower series, Gaza-born Palestinian Taysir Batniji was inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher, famed for their meticulous documentation of Germany’s industrial architecture. He decided to capture, in a similar manner, Israeli watchtowers in occupied Palestine, but not being permitted to travel to the West Bank, he delegated the work to an unnamed local Palestinian photographer. This says as much about the subject as the pictures themselves, which are sparse, desolate, and composed of inflexible formal lines.

Atiq Rahimi, born in Kabul and living in Paris, documents his return to Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Confronted by the ruin of his hometown, Rahimi decided not to photograph the city with a digital camera but a primitive box camera once used to take identity portraits in the streets of Kabul. Le Retour Imaginaire (The Imaginary Return), possibly my favourite body of work at the exhibition, is an exquisite, pain-filled series, imbued with derelict beauty and loss. These miniature photographs serve as tiny windows into a world that is at once dream-like and nightmarish. An old man sits alone on an empty street, a river overflows its banks, a bare tree twists into the sky, a gathering of people arranges itself inexplicably in a circle.

Directly translating violence onto photographic canvas, artist John Jurayj, who is from the US, employs a grossly enlarged news image of the bombed US embassy in Beirut in 1984 as a site of violence. The image is violated by holes burnt into the paper, through which one can see patches of red evoking bloodshed and death, not only at the embassy but also through the course of the Lebanese civil war. Yto Barrada, who was born in Paris and lives in Morocco, points towards a different type of geographical spoilage through her large-scale photograph “Bricks (Briques)”. The image, though not particularly memorable, shows a landscape of hills on the outskirts of Tehran, dotted with recently constructed buildings in various stages of completion, overshadowed by a pile of bricks in the foreground which seems to mirror the undulations of the landscape. The play here is clearly between the natural and manmade, between the apparent chaos that exists in the natural world and the order that human settlements attempt to impose upon a space.

WHILE PHOTOGRAPHS from the Middle East regularly feature in the front pages of newspapers and magazines, the work by contemporary artists is only just beginning to be recognised and represented. Light from the Middle East attempts to address this imbalance—and mainly succeeds. While the themes explored are mostly predictable, such as cultural clashes and regional violence, many of the artists approach them with fresh, innovative techniques and self-reflexivity that does not border, as it so easily could, on the self-indulgent. Lesser-explored issues of migration, censorship and traditional crafts are also woven into the exhibition whose scope is impressive.

It’s worth noting, however, that 87 of the 90 images are from the British Museum and V&A’s combined collection of Middle East photography bought with financial help from the Art Fund. In addition, more than half the participating artists have lived, or are living, have studied or been born in Western countries including France, England and the US. (Given this framework, it becomes difficult to comprehend why French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber was not included. Her pictures of the Kuwait desert after the Gulf War in 1991 are both graceful and devastating.) Perhaps there could have been a more sustained effort on the part of the organisers to include more artists who currently live and work in the region, or question preconceived notions about the Middle East. We miss the presence of Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi, whose Goftare Nik series in 2000 set out to counter and challenge sweeping preconceptions about her country with images of Tehran’s slick and modern infrastructure, new roads and highways. She would have served as an arresting contrast to the works by Ramini, Abbas and Jurayj. Also required was an attempt to address—perhaps textually as well as photographically—the multiple, nuanced identities of this vast, complex region, and to, in some way, dismantle a lumpy geographical term that is ill-defined and was, in all probability, born in the offices of British India in the 1850s.

BEFORE I LEFT THE PORTER GALLERY, I passed the gentleman and his young student standing at Jurayj’s bullet-riddled photograph.

“Blood, blood,” he said, gesturing dramatically. “That’s the mark of Lebanon’s violent history.”

Having accompanied them for over an hour now, I felt as though I had some sort of right to intervene.

“I’m sure that’s not all there is to Lebanon’s past,” I offered. They looked at me in surprise; there was a pause before the gentleman said, “Ah, but this is what they want us to see.”

Within this gallery, the language of light is used to write, and, more importantly, rewrite, lines in various histories, to connect them with a more gracious future. The exhibition displayed ‘new photography’. Perhaps what was also needed, on the part of the audience, was new ways of seeing.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel and Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories for which she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Award for Fiction in 2013. She is currently based in New Delhi.