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)
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.