Light from the Middle East: About the Exhibition

13 November 2012 - 7 April 2013

Nermine Hammam, 'The Break', from the series 'Upekkha', 2011. Museum no. E.1129-2012. The Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

Nermine Hammam, 'The Break', from the series 'Upekkha', 2011. Museum no. E.1129-2012. The Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

Photography is a powerful and persuasive means of expression. Its immediacy and accessibility make it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the Middle East today.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography presented work by artists from across the Middle East (spanning North Africa to Central Asia), living in the region and in diaspora.

The exhibition explored the ways in which these artists investigate the language and techniques of photography. Some use the camera to record or bear witness, while others subvert that process to reveal how surprisingly unreliable a photograph can be. The works range from documentary photographs and highly staged tableaux to images manipulated beyond recognition. The variety of approaches is appropriate to the complexities of a vast and diverse region.

Light from the Middle East was divided into three sections, Recording, Reframing and Resisting, each of which focuses on a different approach to the medium of photography.

Recording

Photography is a seemingly accurate means of recording people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or document a historic moment. It can reveal something not otherwise visible, such as a place or event the viewer would not have access to, or a particular vantage point available only to the photographer. It can also create a lasting image of a fleeting performance, or of a scene staged only for the camera.

But how reliable is a photograph? Despite the apparent authority of photographic images, they can trick or disorient. They can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning. What are the limitations of photography?

The photographers in this section use a range of approaches to exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record.

Reframing

The artists in this section appropriate or imitate images from the past in order to make statements about the present. Their sources range from studio portraiture to fashion photography, from Old Master paintings to Modernist photographs. Using a variety of techniques, they update and interrogate, knowingly combining past and present, East and West, fact and fiction. Whether emulating or critiquing, these artists reframe existing images to new ends.

Resisting

The artists in this section question the idea that a photograph can tell the truth. Some digitally alter images. Some scratch negatives and prints, or even burn them. Other artists reject clarity and detail in favour of processes that rely on chance. The results are murky, atmospheric images that require effort to interpret.

These manipulations demonstrate the fragility of the photograph, whether at the hands of artists or censors. They also lay bare the power of photographic imagery to influence and control through propaganda or surveillance. These works resist photography’s claim to accuracy and authority.

In this film five of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition - Abbas, Manal Al-Dowayan, John Jurayj, Nermine Hammam and Hassan Hajjaj, explain central themes and aims of their work, their background and the significance of being a Middle Eastern artist working and exhibiting at an international level.

View transcript of video

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