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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge