Mehreen Murtaza describes her series of photographs, The Dubious Birth of Geography, as “creating a tear in time”.
Jebel Toubkal in the south of Morocco seems to melt into chunks of polygonal rock that dissipate in the air. A stately portrait from the 1860s of the Swiss geologist Armanz Gressly is suddenly invaded by ominous chandelier-shaped spacecrafts. Lake Chad appears to yawn open as it’s sucked down into a black hole.
We know these images are manipulated, we know that they’re fantasy. But the sepia tone and archival quality give these fantastical scenes an absurd authority – it is, in that sense, a batch of work about the dubious being made manifest.
Murtaza’s work features in A Permanent Record For Future Investigation, a group show of five artists currently being held at Green Art Gallery in Dubai and curated by the Iranian artist Kamrooz Aram.
Based in Lahore, Murtaza tells The National that The Dubious Birth of Geography emerged gradually from research over the last few years. “The series aims to re-imagine the world map by re-contextualising time and place,” she says. “Certain key moments of historical significance are entangled with the other in a carefully choreographed selection of photographs.”
Presented salon-style on the wall, the images span a loose time period before the Second World War. While many of these disparate scenes have been sourced from Wikipedia and the US’s Library of Congress archive, others have been taken from sites with a more esoteric or political slant. Zionist Congresses, Carlsbad, 1923 is one such image, copied from a website with a clear anti-Zionist agenda. It shows a meeting of early Zionist leaders, and Murtaza’s intrusion into the image is a looming mountain range that casts a foreboding shadow over the proceedings.
The artist explains that the rationale behind the work is an attempt to “parody the aesthetics of ficto-criticism recurrent in the Middle East” – a branch of contemporary thinking that she says takes mundane archival material and imbues in it a radical power to tell a narrative of history.
While that may sound complicated, the intersection between reality and the imaginary in Murtaza’s altered photographs is an attempt to show how twistable an image can be.
It’s challenging and multilayered work on show here. As the curator Aram says of Murtaza’s photographs, it’s an exploration into the “power of images to influence how we understand ourselves in the future”.
Until January 10 at Green Art Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai