Middle Eastern Photography @ V&A

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When I first head about the current exhibition of Middle Eastern photography at the V&A I was beyond excited. Given that many of my ancestors have grown up here I was interested to see how the show would be staged. Hoping for fresh light to be shed on a part of the world which is sadly better known for war and violence than its rich culture I had to take a look.

The show which was considerably smaller than what I was expecting consists of 95 photographs from 30 artists from the Middle East. These photographs are presented under three categories of ‘recording’, ‘reframing’ and ‘resisting’ yet these titles are vague. Despite the images being organised in this way, images of conflict dominate throughout. Unfortunately, if you asked me a week later what I remembered most vividly, it would be bloodshed and hardship. While it is interesting to see these images from people experiencing it from the inside instead of on the front pages of national newspapers from British photojournalists, it would have been nice to have seen something different. Among these photographs are scenes of women learning how to use weaponry, car bombs in Beirut and photographs from Newsha Tavakolian in which mothers of martyrs are holding up images of their sons.

In some respects the exhibition has succeeded in altering some western ideas of life in the Middle East, particularly in the inclusion of work by women. One of my favourite female artists Shadi Ghadirian was included in the show exhibiting her Qajar series. Ghadirian places women in traditional Iranian dress in sepia images with modern objects like boom boxes, ray ban sunglasses and cans of coca-cola, completely playing with the idea of representation and stereotype. It is exactly this kind of image that I was hoping would prevail throughout.

Sadly, the show sympathises with the western stereotype. I was longing for more photographs of the everyday – an honest depiction of what is considered to be ‘normal day-to-day activity’ in the Middle East. While we are given insights from the inside, half of the artists featured have lived or studied in the west. The show was curated by westerner Marta Weiss, a New Yorker who would have put western ideologies onto the display. It would have been much more interesting to have a guest curator from the region. It could be argued that the work exhibited isn’t giving us any ‘pure’ light as these artists and their curator know how their world is portrayed in our environment. It would be much simpler to play up to their stereotype and unfortunately, this is what has happened. I left yearning for a presentation of a fresh perspective, secretly hoping for an illustration that would juxtapose the images we are normally shown in the press, unfortunately, this will have to wait for another exhibition.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 7 April 2013

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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