Reviewed: Light From the Middle East at the V&A

Middle Eastern photographic practice in focus.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography

Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

It seems the great galleries and museums in London have been bitten by the shutterbug, with a noticeable tendency towards photographic exhibitions this season. The National Portrait Gallery recently exhibited Mario Testino’s portraits of the Royal Family, complemented by Marilyn Monroe’s portraits by Cecil Beaton. Ansel Adams’s photographs are currently on show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the Victoria and Albert Museum has followed suit with two spectacular shows. As an avid amateur photographer, I couldn’t have been more excited to see "Light from the Middle East", the V&A’s exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern photography.

The Middle East is shining bright as a growing "hot spring" for contemporary art. Sotheby’s held its first ever auction highlights exhibition from its Doha sale, along with a charity auction in Saudi Arabia last month as part of its new arts initiative, Jeddah Art Week.Other art ventures, such as the Sharjah Biennial launched in 1993, Gulf Art Fair in 2007 and Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, home to Louvre and Guggenheim franchises opening in 2015 and 2017, has drawn increasing amounts of attention, commercial and otherwise, to the region. So the V&A show is highly relevant.

Light from the Middle East is the V&A’s spotlight on the response of contemporary Middle Eastern artists to the social and political challenges of the past 20 years. Scanning (and spanning) the region stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, curator Marta Weiss has selected 95 works that reflect a growing interest in the region’s photographic art as a distinct and often under-represented category. The majority of works exhibited are from a joint collection sponsored by ArtFund and built by the British Museum and the V&A. It features photographs by celebrated and emerging artists from the late 20th century to the present day.

Divided into three themes - "recording", "reframing" and "resisting" - the exhibition presents itself as a project with two related aims. The first is to present a multi-faceted set of viewpoints on a region where the personal, social, religious, and political lives of its inhabitants are sites of friction. The second is to present an exploration of the medium. How do these artists employ different visual strategies to demonstrate the possibilities of the camera image today? The inclusion of photographs that use the camera as a tool for faithful documentations of people and places are juxtaposed with "staged reality" and images that had undergone obvious post-processing to subvert the authority of photographs and expose its limitations.

The same visual strategies and motivations were employed by German photographers during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as by photographers subjected to Stalin’s Socialist Realist agenda. Interestingly enough, one artist, Taysir Batniji, noted the influence of German Modernist artists Berndt and Hilla Bechers’s serialised photographs of old industrial buildings in his Israeli Watchtowers series. Nermine Hammam’s Upekkha series (pictured at the top) bears remarkable technical similarities to Stalinist Socialist Realist paintings, and Sots-Art paintings by Russian artist Boris Mikhailov.  Hammam’s works were based on the 2011 Arab spring where photographs of soldiers in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were re-coloured and placed within idyllic settings as a means to transport them away from the violent reality in which they previously stood.

 It is quite fascinating to see how the presence of these techniques in Middle Eastern photographic practice has created a visual language for viewpoints on a variety of issues including: the conflict between tradition and modern consumer culture and censorship of media texts in the press.

Shadi Gharirian’s Qajar series manipulates the trope of portraits of Iranian women of the 19th Century Qajar period. Photographed against an architectural backdrop, the traditionally dressed sitters are pictured interacting with modern objects such as Pepsi cans, stereo systems, and sunglasses to compare and contrast ways of life for women then and now.                                            

Shadi Gharirian, from the series ‘Qajar’, 1998.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography runs until 7 April.

Nermine Hammam, from the series Upekkha, 2011. (Picture: Victoria and Albert Museum)
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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.