Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the V&A (13 November 2012 – 7 April 2013)

Guest blogger Saranna Biel-Cohen shares highlights from Light from the Middle East: New Photography, at the V&A in London

London: This exhibition is a collaboration between the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum and a result of a grant given by The Art Fund in 2009 enabling the museums to collect contemporary Middle Eastern photography. You can read more about the grant on the Art Fund’s website. This is the first major exhibition of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East, featuring 30 artists from 13 countries in the region and in the diaspora. The exhibition is divided into three sections, RECORDING, REFRAMING and RESISTING, referencing the intention and styles of the medium.

RECORDING : Photography can accurately document an event, people or place and can be commemorative or historic. The exhibition later calls into question the reliability of the image by juxtaposing historical snapshots to staged or manipulated images.

The exhibition opens with veteran Iranian photojournalist, Abbas’ black and white series Iran Diary, documenting events during the Iranian revolution.

Abbas, 'Rioters burn a portrait of the Shah as a sign of protest against his regime. Tehran,December 1978', from the series Iran Diary, 1978-9, courtesy V&A

Abbas, ‘Rioters burn a portrait of the Shah as a sign of protest against his regime. Tehran,
December 1978′, from the series Iran Diary, 1978-9, courtesy V&A

Mehraneh Atashi captures aspects of Iranian life not often seen outside the country (and sometimes even inside). She visited a zurkhana, an Iranian wrestling gym, a place usually forbidden to women. She includes her own image in the composition, framed by portraits of religious figures.

Mehraneh Atashi, 'Bodiless I', from the series Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), 2004, courtesy V&A

Mehraneh Atashi, ‘Bodiless I’, from the series Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), 2004, courtesy V&A

Abbas Kowsari, originally a photojournalist and better known as the Senior Photo Editor for the Tehran-based newspaper E’temad, photographs a peshmerga, a Kurdish combatant in northern Iraq. The soldier’s face is excluded from the shot, and the subject in the image seems to be the face printed on his t-shirt- Canadian rock singer Bryan Adams, a juxtoposition of warfare and western popular culture.

Abbas Kowsari, Halabche, 2003, courtesy V&A

REFRAMING: Artists also use photography to reference known images, reworking them to make a personal, social or political statement. Inspired by iconic fashion photography, Moroccan born photographer Hassan Hajjij explores western consumerism alongside traditional values. His frames are made of recycled materials, giving a sculptural element to his work.

Hassan Hajjaj, Saida in Green, 2000, courtesy V&A

Between 1989 and 2004, Lebanese born Walid Raad worked on a project titled The Atlas Group, a fictional archive documenting the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The project includs text, video, installation and photography. This particular work from the series shows notebook pages from the fictional historian named Dr Fakhouri. This character kept a log of every car that was used as a car bomb during war. Read more about Walid Raad.

Walid Raad, Notebook Volume 38: Already Been in a Lake of Fire (Plates 63–64), 2003 courtesy V&A

RESISTING: Artists in this section demonstrate that photography can be manipulated, and truth in the medium is called into question. These artists also explore and expand the use of the medium through digital enhancement, processing techniques and modifications made to the print itself.

Iranian born Taraneh Hemani downloaded mug shots from a US government website just after 9/11. The printed faces are blurred and scratched so the individuals are no longer recognizable, a commentary on western stereotypes of Muslims.

Taraneh Hemami, Most Wanted, 2006, courtesy V&A

Egyptian photographer Nermine Hamman was taken by the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 2011. The army was called in to respond to the protests, and she noticed the young soldiers and their vulnerability during this crisis. She imagined them anywhere but Cairo and superimposed them into vibrant, fantastical settings, recalling and rejecting the propaganda posters of young soldiers during World War II and communist propaganda images.

Hermine Hammam, ‘The Break’, from the series Upekkha, 2011, courtesy V&A

To learn more about the exhibition, click here. Also watch this video.

Guest contributor Saranna Biel-Cohen lives and works in London. She holds a Master’s Degree in History of Art from University College London with a focus on Modern Indian Art.