Rock the Kasbah is a series of street-scene photographs by Tunisian Jellel Gasteli, taken during the first protest of the Arab Awakening in Tunisia. He says, “The sit-in at the Kasbah has helped reveal a silent majority. I am not part of the silent majority.” The uprising that has shaken the Arab world drew local photojournalists, and also art photographers, to give a face to this silent majority. For the first time at a major museum—London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A)—an exhibition, entitled Light from the Middle East: New Photography, gives visibility and insight into the state of contemporary Arab photography. Several of the photographers, such as Egyptian-born Nermine Hammam, document the heartbeat of the Arab protest. In her series Upekkha, she transports weary soldiers she photographed in Tahrir Square to idyllic landscapes, like fantasy postcards far removed from turmoil. She uses digital manipulation to represent altered consciousness. Rose Issa, whose exhibitions and publications have given massive profile to contemporary Arab artists, comments, “The spread of digital technology, the internet and new communication technologies have accelerated the emergence of young talent in the region and speeded up the distribution of their photographs. . . Amateur and professional photographers helped create the Arab revolution.”This concentration on the lives of Arabs—both in their region and in the diaspora—grapples with questions of identity, belonging, emigration, and dislocation
Marta Weiss, curator of the London exhibition, says that Arab photographers are “all palpably concerned with history, a common thread is a focus on human beings. . . this is socially engaged work”. This concentration on the lives of Arabs—both in their region and in the diaspora—grapples with questions of identity, belonging, emigration, and dislocation, and notably Arab women trying to modernise in the thrall of tradition. “These Arab photographers love their countrymen; they are insiders, not outsiders. We are witnessing their desire to reconstruct their own image,” adds Issa.
The exhibition features the work of 30 of the most dynamic and visually sophisticated photographers working today. They represent 13 countries, displaying their creative responses to social challenges and emotive political collisions. Curator Weiss declares: “In the past few years, contemporary photographic practice from and about the Middle East has been some of the most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world.” The show is part of collaboration between the British Museum and the V&A, supported by the Art Fund. Its director, Stephen Deuchar, writes, “This new collection is being formed at a time of profound change in the Middle East. Artists and photographers, as cultural commentators, are themselves amongst the agents of change.”
The exhibition is structured around three key themes: recording, reframing, and resisting. ‘Recording’ essentially shows how photojournalism is such a powerful tool for documentation and commentary, with war and occupation as a recurring anthem, followed by the requiem of its aftermath—the gaze of its suffering victims. Newsha Tavakolian is one of Iran’s many brilliant female photographers, focusing particularly on women’s issues. In her series Mothers of Martyrs, elderly mothers hold framed pictures of their sons killed in the Iran–Iraq war. Rose Issa notes that “when a land is marked by dispossession, diaspora, war and ongoing occupation, the artists—like those from fractured countries such as Palestine and Lebanon—create conceptually richer work than those from larger, more settled countries.” Even so, “several artists from the oil-rich Gulf countries convey their unresolved wrestle with censorship, double standards and women’s right to vote, drive, work and empower themselves.” Jowhara Al-Saud, born in Jeddah, explores the language of censorship and its effects on visual communication. By scratching only the outlines of snapshots into negative emulsion, she says, “I tried to apply the language of the censors to my photographs, omitting faces and skin. This allowed me to circumvent and comment on some of the cultural taboos, namely the stigma attached to the personal portrait”—and censorship.
Part of the second section, ‘Reframing’, includes reworking pre-existing photographs. Inspired by Qajar-era portraits, Shadi Ghadirian recreates these nineteenth century Iranian studio portraits with wry humour, updating them with contemporary props such as a ghetto-blaster, a vacuum cleaner, and Pepsi cans. As a wife and working mother, her work reflects her own life and addresses the concerns of Iranian women of her generation. “The jarring contrast of these modern consumer goods with the old-fashioned style of the portraits is indicative of the tension between tradition and modernity, public personas and private desires that many Iranian women navigate on a daily basis,” writes Marta Weiss.
‘Reframing’ could also imply rebranding. In what he calls Souk with a Twist, Hassan Hajjaj criss-crosses between tradition and brand logos, a juxtaposition similar to that of his two residences in Marrakech and London. He captures the upbeat rhythm of North African street life iconography with warmth, humour, and a degree of kitsch self-mockery. Dressed in veils and djellabahs, his models seem to respect their heritage. But look again: one of them is astride a Harley Davidson, another is winking above her veil; their hijabs sport the Louis Vuitton logo while their babouches display the Nike tick.
The final section, ‘Resisting’, displays photographs which question the authority of the photograph, challenging the medium’s ability to transmit factual information as documentary authority. Whether manipulating or digitally altering or scratching negatives, these artists undermine the reliability of photography. Rejecting modern technology and armed with a basic box camera, Atiq Rahimi records evocative sites across war-ravaged Kabul. He had fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and returned after the fall of the Taliban. In his poetic, melancholy series Le Retour Imaginaire, he shows the bird market now selling mostly empty cages, as well as the Ghazi Stadium, used by the Taliban as a place of execution and now also empty.
In a series called the Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), Iranian Mehraneh Atashi investigates the possibilities of self-portraiture. She gained the confidence of members of an all-male gymnasium, not only capturing its world traditionally forbidden to women, but used mirrors to insert her own image. Youssef Nabil also embarked on self-portraiture after he left Cairo, and experienced diasphoric life. “I had closed a door behind me and I was no longer the person I used to be,” he said. Exile, whether voluntary or enforced, can inspire art used to rebuild a sense of self. (One of Nabil’s self-portraits depicts him sleeping among tree roots.) Another series, inspired by the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 1940’s and 1950’s, created decadently pastiche, highly-staged portraits of glamorous women using a luminous gelatine-silver print process, which he then tints.
Contemporary Arab photographers are not only exploring questions of their own history, culture, identity and individual choices, but are reinterpreting photography’s role globally.
Light from the Middle East: New Photography runs from 13 November 2012 to 7 April 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.