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.
Picture: pressimages.vam.ac.uk

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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From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.