Light from the Middle East – new photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum

LIGHT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST

“You are always on these OCA days!” another student tells me as we wait at the V+A for the OCA visit to start. I certainly find it helpful to meet with other students and in particular tutors – it helps to give perspective on what one is doing and distance learning can leave one feeling isolated. For some people, attending an OCA day has kept them on track; they have been about to drop a course and attended an OCA day as a last ditch attempt and it has worked.

I share a coffee downstairs in the V+A cafe with a few other students. One complains about his tutor and enthuses about his camera; I wonder if the two are not connected – the OCA photography course is not about the best equipment or about how to use it as this knowledge can be freely obtained elsewhere rather it is concerned with understanding the medium and learning how to use it as an expressive tool.

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude; to his right, tutors Robert Enoch and Simon Barber

As with most OCA days, it starts with a tutor, in this case Gareth Dent the CEO of the OCA, telling us what the day is about. One is to gain a personal perspective of the work on show (I try to pepper my personal perspective with as many other views as I can) and seeing photography in the gallery, a completely different experience to seeing it on screen or in a book. Gareth also asks us to question what is going on in the exhibition such as the way it has been hung and where images have been placed in relation to each other; he considers the three fold segmentation of the work into sections called “Recording, Reframing, Resisting” as somewhat arbitrary pointing out for instance, that Abbas does not merely record he also reframes. Certainly the work of Abbas, a Magnum photographer, is very skilled producing technically proficient images that print well but also creating compositions that both interest and inform the viewer. The images on show are about the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Mullahs and come from the end of the 1970’s when the Shah was overthrown and sent into exile. I am familiar with Abbas from his images of Islam and one can see he is getting closer enough to his subjects to make the pictures worthwhile; the grim spectacle of four generals in the morgue not only allowed Abbas to make a great document, it also probably helped the ruling party to show the populace that the generals were really dead.

What I like about this exhibition is that it is concerned with photography rather than attempting to make an artistic statement through the use of photography although the latter is present. The catalogue published by Steidl, currently one of the very best publishers of photographic books, also contains a helpful introductory essay by Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at The Victoria and Albert Museum, in which she mentions all the images on show and gives a brief description of what they are about that does enable one to understand photographs that might easily be discussed. She also makes pertinent remarks about photography in general. For instance, she starts by saying … “The immediacy, universality and accessibility of photography makes it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East” which nicely contextualises the subject of the exhibition; she continues … “For many of them, photography is not just a documentary tool. Rather, it is a ubiquitous yet powerful creative medium to be exploited and interrogated.

She also has more general statements to make about the medium of photography saying “A photograph may be regarded as simply a window onto the world, as a picture of something. A photograph however, is not just an image, but an object, and the choice of how photographs use the medium and its techniques can be as important as what they choose to picture.” Weiss even suggests ways to look at the photographs with the following questions … “How has the maker exploited or challenged the medium? What is expressed by using photography in a particular way? Why was photography the medium of choice? To what extent does the work acknowledge pre-existing photographs that relate to the Middle-East?

Of course, Gareth is right to challenge Weiss’ decision to compartmentalise the work. Of the first section, Weiss writes that “the photographers … exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” a statement which can surely be applied to photographs from other parts of the exhibition. Yet one can hardly deny her statement that “photography is a powerful tool for documenting people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or bear witness to historic moments” while she goes on to qualify this by stating “Despite their apparent authority, photographs can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher; they can trick or disorient. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning.

If one wants a detailed account of this exhibition, one might read Weiss’s introduction. Here, I am just going to note down images that evoked a response from me at the time of viewing. For instance, Abbas Kowsari has made an interesting close up of a soldier”s tea shirt showing a Western male below which are the weapons he carries. Black and white photographs made over the course of 10 years showing a Sufi festival are striking since they show the practice of people gorging knives into themselves although this does seem rather sensationalist coverage. Another photograph of a bridge cracked and covered in graffiti does need an explanation since as an image it tends to say little – the bridge had collapsed sometime earlier to the photograph being made killing many people and so the photographer had made it into a monument.

The image of a square magnet surrounded by upraised iron filings might be read as a satirical comment on worshippers at the Qaaba in Mecca of which it is an obvious reference; however, one might also see it as an insight into the cosmic dimensions of this particular Isalmic practice suggesting that there is something deeply natural to the practice. The image used by the OCA to announce this study day visit is of a woman, one sees only her eyes and forehead since she holds a small blackboard over the lower part of her face as if it were a Burkha covering her; the woman is in fact a lecturer in English Literature at a university.

How honest a picture of the Middle East does this exhibition present? There is a political edge to it that might be expected in documentary photography yet is this representative of photography as a whole in the Middle East? Might not the exhibition be a response to our preconceptions of the Middle East? I do not know enough to answer these questions and yet there is another photographic book, Arab Photography Now that might – it seems highly unlikely that all the photographers reprinted here would be found in the other book and vice the versa? In fact, a review of this other book states … “All the leading arab photographers are ignored. Where is Walid Raad, Fouad El Khoury, Hrair Sirkassian, Adel Abidin, Ziad Antar, Akram Zaatari, Zineb Sedira, Meriem Bouberdala, … ?

Another image that I found meaningful was a large panorama by Mitra Tabrizian in which a couple of Mullah’s gaze down from a billboard onto a group of people; these people are staged models and their poises look strained. I can not help but see here the powerful control that religion has over people in Middle Eastern countries.

A pile of bricks in a characterless modern housing estate by Yto Barrada is the kind of photograph that makes one scratch one’s head a little. How to see beyond the banality of an apparently meaningless image? There is much to discuss though in terms of the shapes within the image, the slightly squewered verticals, the lack of people and of any character to the place etc

A video installation in a separate room had an eerie feel to it. The sound of American voices at one point could not stop the feeling that one was perhaps seeing some kind of military construction while the whistling wind further enhanced feelings of bleakness and alienation. The image was from the desert where the low sun of dusk and dawn may reveal what is not normally visible.

In the reframing section the artists “look to the photographs of the past for inspiration and as a point of reference … they research, copy and interrogate past pictorial traditions and photographic imagery.

One image that sparks quite a bit of discussion is Raeda Saadeh’s “Who will make me real?” She can hardly be called a Page 3 girl yet perhaps she is satirising this. For Gareth, there is an obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia although Marta Weiss makes the reference to a photograph of a Mohammed woman by Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil; Gareth also writes that “The title: ‘Who will make me real?’ could be a reference to the John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”. Is it the looking at Saadeh that makes her real? Or is it a reference to her status as an Arab with Israeli citizenship – a status frequently ignored in the football team approach to considering and reporting the Palestinian situation ...”

It is really the gaze here that is important and this is similar to the Olympia of Manet.

Tutor Robert Enoch writes … “The reference to Manet’s Olympia is resonant because that is a painting of a prostitute. Saadeh is at the same time appropriating/using as she experiences being used/appropriated. It is a strange act of defiance. It also brings up the question of ‘who creates identity/history/reality?’ The newspapers over her body suggests more than oppression, but a sort of pressure from outside that both conceals and shapes the perception of self.

There seem to be different layers of meaning to this image; I question the assertion that “Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” I can’t read the newspaper because I don’t know Arabic so this statement sounds a bit over the top. The newspaper prevents us from see her nudity just as often newspapers stop us from seeing the facts and the truth they suggest because of a particular slant that the newspaper adopts. Furthermore, the newspaper prevents us from seeing her sensuality by it’s physical nature not it’s content!

Another photograph from this section, a group of photographs in fact that were modelled on the style of the Becher’s project of photographing disappearing industrial buildings, was Taysir Batnaji’s Watchtowers, West Bank / Palestine (2008). I found this one of the more powerful pieces. The fact that the artist had to get someone else to make the photographs is a reminder of the ominousness of these buildings which loom out at one with much more drama than those of the Bechers. Batniji to whom these photos are attributed, is a Gaza-born Palestinian and therefore not able to travel to the West Bank. Should a Palestinian who wants to make an artistic statement about Israel be denied doing so? Tutor Peter Haveland commented … “I really don’t see why contracting out the taking of the images makes any difference to the work. This is an art work not a photography course exercise after all and the reference to the Bechers work brings a sense of irony and a historic reference to the piece. Much work is being made with found images, Mishka Henner for example, under the broad umbrella of ‘photography’ and no one is concerned if an image is printed by someone else and so often the shutter is pressed by an assistant anyway, so where is the difference?

Batniji comments on the photographs that …  “They are out of focus, clumsily framed, and imperfectly lit. In this territory one can not install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait for the ideal conditions.”

There are a group of sepia coloured photographs by Shadi Ghadirian which look very much like antique prints until one sees reminders of modernity such as a bicycle, a pair of sunglasses and other contemporary objects in them. We jokingly wonder if she would pass the first assignment of the OCA module, The Art of Photography; the contrasts in this work do not relate to form however but to concept.

The final section is called Resisting where the photographers “resist the authority of the photograph: scratching out or digitally removing faces, inserting figures into new back-grounds, even burning the print itself.

Abiq Rahim for instance, has resorted to old technology in his making of small soft focus black and white prints of his native Kabul which he returned to after 18 years away. Joana Hadjithomas and Khali Joreige have used old postcards of Beirut which have been damaged to illustrate the way the city itself has suffered since the original photographs were made. There is also an interesting work by Sukran Moral in which a group of men sit in a boat (a black and white photograph) while on their shoulders sit brightly coloured birds (colour photographs) – the image is called “Despair”(2003) and refers to the fate of those who have to migrate.

Other images worth mentioning (actually they all are!) are those by Nermine Hammam whose dreamlike images of soldiers from a series called Upekkha references the Buddhist attitude of seeing the world with equanimity.

There was so much to see in this exhibition and consider and this blog only touches on it.

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

jogging across Hyde Park

jogging across Hyde Park

 

A SECOND VISIT

I like to visit an exhibition more than once since if it is a good exhibition, one is bound to deepen one’s perspective of it. Immediately, I think of the photographs that I liked first time that I did not spend time discussing because it seemed almost politically incorrect to do so since beauty was the mainstay of their appeal although there is much more to them than this – these are sepia toned images of a Arabian woman in traditional clothing yet what appear to be classical images are punctured by objects from the contemporary world … such as a soft drink can or a bicycle. The artist-photographer’s name is Shadi Ghadirian.

Much has been written on beauty over the centuries so it is not easy to define – my own perception of it here is certainly in part that of the male gaze! Recently, the OCA discussed the matter of beauty quoting from Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” … this deserves a blog of it’s own!

 

 

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