Recording, resisting, reframing: Contemporary Middle Eastern photography at V&A Museum – curator interview

The V&A presents a self-awareness about the photographic image as the loose strand that ties Middle Eastern photography together.   

Art Radar talks to curator Dr Marta Weiss about “Light from the Middle East: New Photography”, an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert museum between 13 November 2012 and 7 April 2013, in which different approaches to photography have been united under the three sections of Recording, Resisting and Reframing.

Sukran Moral, 'Despair', 2003, digital c-print, 66 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Sukran Moral, ‘Despair’, 2003, digital c-print, 66 x 100cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

According to the V&A website, the Recording section incorporates work by artists who “use a range of approaches to exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” while artists in the Reframing section “appropriate or imitate images from the past in order to make statements about the present”. Artists categorised under the Resisting section “question the idea that a photograph can tell the truth” and either alter images in some way or forsake detail and clarity in favour of “processes that rely on chance”, thereby resisting “photography’s claim to accuracy and authority”.

Art Radar spoke with curator Weiss, curator of photography at the V&A, about the exhibition.

How did this exhibition “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” come about?

We received a grant from the Art Fund, and began collecting the works in 2009 and 2010. Half the works were collected by the British Museum and the other half by the V&A. In 2010, I took all the works that had been collected as the starting point for the exhibition. I had the structure of the exhibition in place and received additional funding to make some further acquisitions. It’s a backwards way to put together an exhibition. It’s helpful in some ways because it limits your scope and forces you to work with a certain pool of works, but on the other hand, I would normally have a thesis or a story I wanted to tell, and then I would look for works that helped to tell the story.

How were the twin goals of collecting for the Museum and curating the exhibition achieved?

Concerns of collecting are different from concerns for putting together an exhibition. When you’re putting together an exhibition, it’s crucial to be able to put things together [in a way] that forms a narrative, that creates a sort of argument and a kind of flow for the visitor. When you are collecting, it’s more thinking about what else you have in the collection and how what you’re acquiring fits into the existing holdings. Does it fill a gap? Does it complement something we already have? So there were different motivations for acquiring the works than there normally would be for putting together an exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Recording, Resisting and Reframing. Why were the works organised based on these photographic approaches?

One reason was that the works gathered here are extremely diverse and from such a huge, wide region, but I do sense a recurring sense of self-awareness about the photographic image in a lot of the work. If it was one loose thread I could detect, it was that, and I wanted to pull that out. Another reason was that, as a whole, the V&A is very interested in processes and techniques and how things are made and why they are made that way and so on.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 'Wonder Beirut #13, Modern Beirut, International Centre of Water-Skiing', from the series "Wonder Beirut", 1997-2006, c-print mounted on aluminum with face mounting, 70.5 x 105.4 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, ‘Wonder Beirut #13, Modern Beirut, International Centre of Water-Skiing’, from the series “Wonder Beirut”, 1997-2006, c-print mounted on aluminium with face mounting, 70.5 x 105.4cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

How is this exhibition different from the previous exhibitions of Middle Eastern photography and contemporary art?

Much of this work has been presented in other contexts, not photographic exhibitions, but publications and exhibitions about contemporary Middle Eastern practice or contemporary Arab art or art from the Islamic world. In a lot of these publications, we see recurring themes like conflict and identity and the body and gender issues. Those categories are still very much present in a lot of the works, but I think that was a more expected way to do the show. I was trying to frame the show in a different way. People have a tendency to look at photographs as images and as documents, or just to read them for the subject matter and the content, and they forget about the materiality of it, or the ideas or choices that the artists made when making these photographs, and so on.

Mehraneh Atashi, 'Bodiless I', from the series "Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength)", 2004, digital c-print, 76.5 x 112.5 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Mehraneh Atashi, ‘Bodiless I’, from the series “Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength)”, 2004, digital c-print, 76.5 x 112.5 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Can you talk about how one of the artists played with the materiality of his or her art works? 

In the works of Jowhara AlSaud, she is making reference to issues that have to do with censorship of visual information in Saudi Arabia and what’s acceptable in public versus private in terms of imagery, but, as she says herself, she’s also trying to play around with and point out the malleability of photography. She takes a photograph of the envelope and then she takes the negative and she scratches into it. She scratches away the emulsion on the photographic negative to make the drawings, which are themselves based on her own snapshots of friends and family, and then she prints them. It’s a very knowing, manipulated way of dealing with the photographs. It’s not just a photograph of a protest or a political situation.

Jowhara AlSaud, 'Airmail', from the series "Out of Line", 2008, c-type print, 50.8 x 61 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Jowhara AlSaud, ‘Airmail’, from the series “Out of Line”, 2008, c-type print, 50.8 x 61 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

The photographs taken by Iranian photojournalist Abbas in the late 1970s are used as an introduction to the show and they are politically motivated. All the other art works in the exhibition were made in the past decade. Do you think these art works are as politically motivated as Abbas’ photographs? 

Well, I think politics is heavily present in contemporary Middle Eastern practice, but it’s not exclusive. I interviewed the artists for the exhibition catalogue and that’s one of the questions: Do you see your work as political? It really varies and it is interesting that some of them say ‘Of course it’s political; how can it not be political?’ or that ‘everything is political’. It sort of ranges from that to ‘Well, no I’m not doing anything intentionally political, but I do recognise that people can interpret it that way’.

Abbas, 'Rioters burn a portrait of the Shah as a sign of protest against his regime, Tehran, December 1978', from the series "Iran Diary", 1978-9, gelatin silver print, 24 x 30 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Abbas, ‘Rioters burn a portrait of the Shah as a sign of protest against his regime, Tehran, December 1978’, from the series “Iran Diary”, 1978-9, gelatin silver print, 24 x 30 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Based on the answers that you have gathered, what conclusion do you draw?

I guess I sort of agree with both those answers in a way. On the one hand, everything’s political. On the other hand, I can also respect an artist who resists that. In a way, their work could be interpreted as political, but they do not want to declare themselves as political. That’s part of the reality of their situation and there’s so much political upheaval around many of these artists and the situations that they are engaged in that if they want to step back from that, they are entitled to.

Newsha Tavakolian, from the series "Mothers of Martyrs", 2006, digital c-print, 50 x 76 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Newsha Tavakolian, from the series “Mothers of Martyrs”, 2006, digital c-print, 50 x 76cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Several artists in the show live and work in the West. Do you think their works continue to reflect a Middle Eastern point of view?

I’m not sure I see a huge difference between the artists who live in their countries of origin and the ones who don’t because even the ones who live in their countries of origin are aware of what’s going on internationally and many of them have travelled. Some of them have had some art education outside their own countries and even if they haven’t, they have the internet. And that’s also something I was interested in that came out in the interviews that I did, especially the Saudi artists who talked about their influences, like Ansel Adams being an artist that inspired them, which is something you wouldn’t necessarily expect, but why not? It’s the reality of today’s world that these artists move around and their influences are from both the East and the West.

Youssef Nabil, detail from the series "The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields", 2006, hand-coloured gelatin silver print, 39 x 27 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Youssef Nabil, detail from the series “The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields”, 2006, hand-coloured gelatin silver print, 39 x 27cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Hassan Hajjaj, 'Saida in Green', 2000, digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Hassan Hajjaj, ‘Saida in Green’, 2000, digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Are there many women artists in the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene? And what are the issues that they explore through their craft? 

I think many, not all, of the works by women refer in some way to gender issues in their countries of origin. And then, more generally, people have remarked that they are surprised at how many women artists there are in the exhibition. But the population is half women, so why not have half women artists in the exhibition? It was not something that was intentional in the least. It was something that just happened that way. So I do think, though, that it is indicative of the active role that women are playing in the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene.

Waheeda Malullah, from the series "Light", 2006, inkjet prints on rag paper, 66.49 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Waheeda Malullah, from the series “Light”, 2006, inkjet prints on rag paper, 66.49 x 100cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Tell us about the panel discussion that took place in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition.

Waheeda Malullah made the final comment of the day, and it was really moving because she became quite emotional speaking to the other women artists about how brave she thought they were for doing the work they were doing. That’s sort of brought it all back a little to me. At the end of the day, the work is political and personal, and it’s heartfelt, and I hope that comes through as well because that is an important part of the work. It’s not just about talking about it in a detached, historical way.

Nermine Hammam, 'The Break', from the series "Upekha", 2011, archival inkjet print, 60 x 90 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Nermine Hammam, ‘The Break’, from the series “Upekha”, 2011, archival inkjet print, 60 x 90cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

After the structure of the exhibition was in place, Art Fund granted the V&A additional funding for the acquisition of more art works. Which works were among those final acquisitions, and why were those art works in particular selected for acquisition?

Well, there were a number of things I was looking for. One was that I wanted to try to bring the exhibition more up to date because Arab Spring happened during the time I was working on the exhibition. In fact, shortly after I started working on it, the revolution kicked off. The work from Nermine Hammam deals with Egypt, and was one of the works that I acquired later on. Another thing I wanted to do was to look for work that wasn’t figurative because there were already many figurative works in the collection.

Jananne Al-Ani, 'Aerial III', from the series "Shadow Sites", 2011, single channel digital video, 9 minutes. Photography by Adrian Warren. Image courtesy the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London.

Jananne Al-Ani, ‘Aerial III’, from the series “Shadow Sites”, 2011, single channel digital video, 9 minutes. Photography by Adrian Warren. Image courtesy the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London.

Is there a market for Middle Eastern photography, other than collection by museums such as the British Museum and the V&A?

It’s definitely a growing market. I think there are many collectors in the region and also people who have links to the Middle East who live elsewhere who are collecting Middle Eastern art.

There has been a lot of public interest in the show. Why do you think that the level of interest has been so high?

We have had over 200,000 visitors to the show. It’s a part of the world that everybody is aware of and curious about, but many people don’t know very much about it, so I think it just has a broad appeal in that way. And then, I think, for audiences who are a bit more used to looking at art, it’s just kind of an art scene that hasn’t had a lot of exposure here. This is certainly the first time there’s such a big exhibition just on photography from the Middle East. For many audience members it’s new and exciting material, and people are interested to come and see what is made in the region.

Shadi Ghadirian, from the series "Qajar", 1998, gelatin silver bromide print, 30 x 24 cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Shadi Ghadirian, from the series “Qajar”, 1998, gelatin silver bromide print, 30 x 24cm. Image courtesy Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

  NW/KN/HH

Related Topics: artists from the Middle Eastphotography, curatorial practice

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