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Light from the Middle East: New Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum | reviews, news & interviews

Light from the Middle East: New Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum

Light from the Middle East: New Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum

Two national museums combine to show a turbulent region 'writing with light'

Newsha Tavakolian: from the series 'Mothers of Martyrs' (2006)

This compilation of nearly 90 photographs by 30 photographers from 13 different countries of the Middle East is literally and metaphorically illuminating. The Paris-based Iranian photographer Abbas puts it thus: “I write with light.”

Framed in three different labelled sections  - Recording, Reframing, Resisting – the exhibition is an unusual and welcome collaboration between the Victoria & Albert and British Museums, with support to the tune of £100,000 from the Art Fund. The gift was shared between the two museums who each bought for their own collections. The results, dating from the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the present day, are eye-opening. Immensely diverse in style and subject, they are united by a complex web of emotional ambiguity and ambivalence, and irradiated by an unflinching gaze at the contradictions of turbulent societies. The whole shows the gamut of photography - reportorial, although always dictated by the individual eye, consciously interpretative, even subversive.

Abbas’s prints for Magnum are vignettes, quietly terrifying in the passion they so subtly record of the Iranian revolution. Crowds yell, clerics speechify, young men in white turbans in a disciplined row carry rifles, the Shah’s portrait is being on fire. These are the oldest images on view and of course are far less than a lifetime away. There are more recent, sadly evocative images in colour by the Tehran-based Newsha Tavakolian, from a 2006 series Mothers of Martyrs (main image). Ageing women hold up photographs of their sons, formally framed and eternally young, killed in the costly Iran-Iraq war.

Subtly absurd is the work of Meharanah Atashim, another young woman photographer living in Tehran, from a series called Zourkhaneh (2004), which explores the delighted posturings in the all-male gymnasium, her own self-portrait inserted by way of mirrors (pictured above right). Shadi Ghadirian’s 1998 series Qajar (pictured below left) shows demure, handsome, traditionally dressed young women in a photographer’s studio complete with painted architectural background and traditional furniture. One pair of women hold up a mirror reflecting a full bookcase, another pair a man's bicycle, while several single women wearing just a headscarf embrace western items – a can of Pepsi, a basket of foodstuffs - while a ghetto blaster sits demurely on a table. Such images are not only beautiful and arresting in their own right, but subvert the western clichés of the monolithic nature of some Islamic societies.

There are surprises: the survivors of the oldest Yemeni community in Britain, the sailors of South Shields (pictured overleaf), are recorded in formal portraits hand-coloured by the Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, who now lives in New York. He is one of a significant number of the photographers on display now either living in the West or commuting internationally. The Iranian Mitra Tabrizian studied in London and is professor of photography at the University of Westminster. Her arresting posed tableau, Tehran (2006), shows a frieze of men and women of all ages, most of the women in hijabs, walking on wasteland surrounding desolate new apartment blocks, overlooked by a vast poster of two ayatollahs. Apart from a disconsolate taxi, the only hint of colour is in the bright red plimsolls worn by a scarfed young girl.

And then there is religion. Aleppo-based Issa Touma has recorded over a 10-year period a festival of ecstasy, dancing, processing and self-torture collected in Sufis: The Day of al-Ziyara. The Saudi Ahmed Mata mimics the end of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which cannot be photographed: a black cube of a magnet is surrounded by circular rows of metal filings from a 2011 series called Magnetism. The Iranian Teraneh Hemani’s Most Wanted (2006) is a manipulated photograph of the blurred faces of an octet of men and women; it is a visual reflection of the search for recognisable identities in a region beset by religious, political and cultural schisms. Hemani now lives in San Francisco, and much of her art deals with exile and Diaspora. Next to it, in the Resisting section, is Human Tapestry (2009), a huge mosaic of thousands of group photographs arranged almost like a decorative carpet, by Sadegh Tirafkan, an Iranian whose family was expelled from Iraq after the 1968 coup.

Many of the photographs respond to the moment, while others are elaborate set-ups. The whole is a snapshot of the extraordinary complexity of the region, where the individual biographies attest to the sheer stamina of each artist to produce photographs to report, reflect, interpret, subvert and instruct, while never losing sight of the necessity to capture the viewer by seducing the eye. The detailed accompanying catalogue contains interviews and biographies which testify to the region’s growing enthusiasm for photography.

The results are irradiated by an unflinching gaze at the contradictions of turbulent societies

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