Abbas: I was born a photographer, I am lucky, if you read VS Naipaul he writes beautifully about it, he said “I did not need ambition because I had a vocation”. I mean, that was exactly me, I was born a photographer.
Manal Al-Dowayan: Becoming an artist was quite a strange journey for me because in Saudi Arabia we don’t have any museums or galleries, or an art industry at all, so when I was studying it was not possible for me to be an artist. So I studied something completely different.
Marta Weiss: Some people when they hear the words ‘middle east’ and ‘photography’ together will come with expectations that they’re going to see photographs reflecting some of the recent revolutions and conflicts in the region and although some of those themes are present, what’s really striking is how creatively the artists in this exhibition are using the medium of photography.
‘Light from the Middle East: New Photography’ is the first major museum exhibition of contemporary Middle-Eastern photography and it came about because of a collaboration between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. In 2009, we were given a grant from the Art Fund to start collecting contemporary Middle-Eastern photography. So half the works were acquired by the V&A and half were acquired by the British Museum.
Abbas: When I was a small boy my parents emigrated. I went back for the two years of the revolution 1978-80. I basically lived in Iran covering the revolution, the whole span of the revolution. I think if you look at my work, for the last thirty-five years I have been photographing god, so the recurring theme, yes, after the Iran revolution has been god. I mean various religions, of course, Islam, Christianity, Polytheism, Buddhism and I’m now working on Hinduism.
After the revolution, most of the photography was documentary photography. I joined Magnum in 1981 and then in the late ‘90s you could see a shift, moving from documentary to more personal photography. So it was very exciting, you know, for me as an Iranian having covered the history of Iran, to see all these young photographers emerging.
Manal Al-Dowayan: A lot of my themes are focussed on my experience as a woman and, in general, it reflects a mirrored reflection of a lot of womens’ experience within my country or my region, or women with my background where they’re professionals, they work, they interact with the different rules and guidelines that happen within.
This collection was inspired by a speech that our founding King Abdullah gave when he took the throne, where he invited women and men to come together to build the country. There was a huge sense of hope and excitement, and so I looked around me and invited different women to come in and pose within their job or profession. So I have a petroleum engineer, I have a master scuba diver, I have doctors, educators, every single opportunity of employment existed for women in Saudi at that time.
John Jurayj: The work in the show is a digital print on watercolour paper and I have sourced fairly iconic media images of the US embassy bombing in Beirut in 1984 from the web and printed them very large-scale, so that they diffuse and blur out because they are very low pixilation. The work is then burned, I use a lighter to cut holes through it and make marks, and then insert mirrors behind.
I don’t think of myself as a photographer, and I don’t actually think of the piece as a photograph, I think of it as a drawing. All of my paintings have used photos as a source material for the image, or even the abstraction in the work.
Nermine Hammam: I was a graphic designer for quite a few years in Cairo and then I stopped doing that, I suppose, a month before the Egyptian uprising, so it came in good time. These are photographs that I took during the eighteen days of the uprising of the Egyptian army. I took a lot of images, I took thousands and thousands, and I just chose about fifty. They’re all digitally manipulated and they’re collages, I suppose. People have different interpretations of the work, somebody called me from some Islamic channel here in England saying “your soldiers of paradise” you know, what happens to the Muslim soldiers when they die, I never thought of that but I suppose that people can interpret it this way. I think it has scenes or the feeling of the propaganda posters of the Second World War and the communist propaganda poster, but it’s the anti-propaganda poster. I think what I would like to say, is that boys do not constitute an army, these kids should not go to war.
Hassan Hajjaj: Saida in Green I hope, is one of my classic pictures. Growing up looking at photography, certain photographers have classic photographs that stick out throughout periods of time. So that was a fantasy of mine, to try and create these few images that could be my classics. When I did this piece of work, I wanted it to be contemporary. Growing up in the ‘80s in London, with the counterfeit situation that was happening, we used to patch up our jean jackets and trainers with logo names. So I wanted to use a logo for the veil and you know, have henna, something quite classically so-called ‘Arabic’ and also to do with the eyes as well, so it was a combination of all this, trying to have this classic image that could stick out from other work that’s around.
Nermine Hammam: I think my work basically deals with documentation. Perhaps the end result or the product does not look like straight-forward documentation, but basically the work is about documenting something.
John Jurayj: What I hope the work does is a very, very simple thing, which is just question the space between the viewer and the piece.
Manal Al-Dowayan: In general, I always hope that when a person interacts with my art work is that they walk away and have a dialogue of some sort, a thought-provoking dialogue. The worst thing that I would expect is for somebody to come in and say “oh, pretty”.
Hassan Hajjaj: Everybody has a camera on them now, from a mobile to anything that can capture that image. It doesn’t matter if it’s technically good, I think if it means something, it has a strength.
Nermine Hammam: Maybe we’re living in very turbulent and turmoiled times, photography is the best to show that because it’s very close to reality, it goes between documentation and art. I think because of the political situation we’re in, I think it’s the best tool to portray that.
Light From the Middle East: New Photography is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to contemporary Middle Eastern photography, as curator Marta Weiss points out at the beginning of this film. Five of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition appear in the film: Abbas, Manal Al-Dowayan, John Jurayj, Nermine Hammam and Hassan Hajjaj. Each explains 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.