The Familiar Transformed With the Unexpected

by Susanne Fowler, NYTimes

The manipulation and vulnerability of images are the central themes in “Light From the Middle East,” a thoughtful and layered photography exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum through April 7.

Focusing on the inventive ways that artists use images to tell stories, the show also documents the challenges that have unfolded — and continue to make headlines — in the region, from the now iconic scenes captured by Abbas of the Iranian revolution in the 1970s to Nermine Hammam’s candy-colored and digitally altered shots of Egyptian soldiers in Tahrir Square in 2011. 

The curator, Marta Weiss, has divided 95 works from the V&A and the British Museum collections, plus acquisitions using an Art Fund grant, into three categories — recording, reframing and resisting — using pictures of historic events, photographs of other photographs and photographs that reflect how the medium is used by societies. Thirty-one artists from 13 countries are represented. 

“We all know that photographs can be manipulated and that we can’t really trust them,” the curator said, “and yet there’s also something very instinctive about relying on a photograph and that’s something a lot of these artists are engaging with.” 

During a private tour of the exhibition, Ms. Weiss said the works included “references to studio portraits, to postcards, to propaganda images, to news photography and to the fact that a photograph is a vulnerable object.” 

The first section — recording — “brings together photographs that are using photography in the most kind of direct way possible,” Ms. Weiss said. “We think of it as factual, we think of it as authoritative. This exhibition certainly explores in lots of ways the reliability of photography.” 

The opening images from Tehran of powerful ayatollahs, executed generals, and rioters burning a portrait of the shah are by Abbas, based in Paris and part of the Magnum cooperative. He photographed the Iranian revolution from 1978 to 1980, and later focused on the resurgence of Islam throughout the world. 

Another example of recording is the “Mothers of Martyrs” series from 2006 by Newsha Tavakolian, a self-taught photographer who worked early in her career for a women’s daily newspaper in Iran. 

These pictures of elderly women holding ornately framed photos of sons killed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s show “one of the many roles a photograph can play in society,” Ms. Weiss said, “that it’s an object of memorialization, but also is an object, a thing to be held in your hands.” 

The second section — reframing — is about updating references to older photographs. 

Shadi Ghadirian, who was born in Tehran in 1974, restages 19th-century portrait photography but updates it by adding contemporary props like a can of Pepsi, a radio, or sunglasses. 

“She’s kind of recreating them in her studio,” Ms. Weiss said. “She had somebody paint the backdrop for her and she dresses these women in kind of approximations of clothing that were the fashion in the period that she’s imitating. You also notice that they’ve got very heavy eyebrows, which was the fashion in 19th-century Iran.” 

“What’s interesting about them, though, is that the photographs these are based on, also showed women posing with very modern, very Western objects, like an ornate clock, or a piano or even a bicycle,” Ms. Weiss said. “So actually these photographs aren’t just about creating that frisson, or tension, between historic and super modern, which is jarring and ironic and amusing, but it’s also about how actually 150 years ago, women in Iran perhaps had more freedoms than they do now.”

Using a broad geographic definition of the Middle East spanning from North Africa to Central Asia, Ms. Weiss said she saw the exhibition as an opportunity to enlighten. 

“Many members of the public who come to see the exhibition are probably going to walk in with a lot of ideas in their head already of what Middle Eastern photography might look like,” she said. “We see the Middle East all the time on our screens and in the newspaper and so on but here’s the chance to look at the Middle East from the perspective of people from the region dealing with their own local concerns.” 

One unexpected and impressive aspect of the exhibition is the number of women photographers represented. 

“About half of the artists are women, actually, and it was not on purpose,” the curator said, “but I do think that photography, compared to other art forms, has a tradition of being something that’s more accessible to women than, you know, back in the 19th century where you needed to go study art at an academy, and draw from the nude and so on. That was not something that was very accessible for women. But in the early days, photography was something you could learn how to do in a kind of more genteel way, as you might learn to do watercolors or embroidery, or even something ladylike like botany that’s sort of scientific but also feminine.” 

Many of the images on display, however, are hardly ladylike. “Some of them are pretty tough,” Ms. Weiss said. 

In the final section — resisting — she has gathered works that “are resisting photography itself in some way or another; they’re resisting the authority of the photograph.” 

“Faces are blanked out or negatives are burned,” she explained. “They’re not allowing the photograph to kind of do what we think photographs are good at, or they’re drawing attention to the fact that photographs are subject to censorship.” 

The Iranian artist Sadegh Tirafkan’s digital print “Human Tapestry,” shows a kind of Persian carpet made up of I.D. photos. “The whole point of an identity portrait,” Ms. Weiss said, “is that it tells you, gives you information, about an individual. But here it becomes nothing more than a little pixel to help form a pattern. It’s kind of denying what the photograph seems to have to offer.” 

In “Despair,” a 2003 digital print, the Turkish artist Sukran Moral takes on the issue of immigration, showing an overcrowded boatload of men risking their lives to seek a better life. The black-and-white image is punctuated by her addition of colorful nightingales on their shoulders, representing the men’s hopes and dreams. 

“It’s a photographic print that has definitely been digitally altered,” Ms. Weiss said, “but it originates with photographic imagery and was printed as a photograph. There’s a lot of mixing of media throughout the show.” 

Perhaps none more colorfully or jarringly so than works by Ms. Hammam, the Egyptian artist who was in Cairo in January 2011. 

“Hers were the only works that I acquired that related to the most recent upheavals in the region,” the curator said. “Hammam was struck, when the soldiers showed up, by how vulnerable these young boys seemed to her and how they wanted to be anywhere but there. 

“So she put them into these fantasy settings, some of which were based on her own collection of vintage postcards. Very far removed from Cairo.” 

One piece, “Spring,” shows men in a tank with a background of Japanese cherry blossoms and what might be Mount Fuji. Another, “The Break,” shows soldiers having a snack in a field of flowers. 

“The suggestion is that the way that the world looked upon the events of Tahrir Square was a kind of form of tourism,” Ms. Weiss said, “where everybody kind of looked at it the way a tourist would and took away something from it, without fully understanding it. 

“And of course it kind of forms a kind of counterpoint to Abbas’s photographs of the Iranian revolution. Very different type of photography; a very different type of revolution.” 

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