Western preconceptions about life in the Middle East are being swept away by a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which features bold and witty political work by artists from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon. Titled Light from the Middle East: New Photography, it is the first major show of contemporary photography from the region, with 90 artworks from 13 countries and will open in November.
"What is usually a surprising fact to western media is that there is an active and healthy internal dialogue about social issues within Saudi Arabia," says Manal Al Dowayan, who has two photographs in the show, which depict women being literally weighed down by tradition. Part of a series called I Am, one shows a female teacher with a blackboard, the other a woman who identifies herself as a Saudi citizen, shrouded in a lace veil. Both wear heavy, metal bracelets. On Al Dowayan's website, she says that religious and political leaders in her country have "hijacked" the debate about women and work, an opinion that she's not afraid to express, because "this dialogue is happening on all levels of media - newspapers, TV, internet - and beyond".
Saudi Arabia also has a contemporary and experimental art scene that has developed over the past 10 years, Al Dowayan says, due to "grassroots, underground artistic activities taking place across the Kingdom, fuelled by young, creative Saudis".
Marta Weiss, the curator of the V&A exhibition, points out that Al Dowayan isn't the only outspoken artist to be featured in Light from the Middle East. She gestures towards a photograph by Waheeda Malullah, in which the Bahraini artist herself is lying down, wrapped in a white drape, next to a Shi'a tomb, and says, "that seems pretty edgy to me". Then she starts explaining the oeuvre of another Saudi artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, who wrote the Arabic word for path (al-siraat) over and over again on the remains of a bridge that collapsed in a flood with crowds of people on it. A picture of the graffitied bridge will be in the show.
In an interview, Gharem says that al-siraat is one of his favourite words. Muslims say it thousands of times in prayer and it's relevant to the collapsed bridge because the people on it "died because they put their faith in the concrete and believed a man who told them it was the safest place for them to be". He says that we live, now, "in a society in which people think it is not OK to think for themselves, especially in the Arab world".
The Iranian Shadi Ghadirian, whose work has been collected by Charles Saatchi, has two photographs in the V&A show from her 1998 series Qajar. They are designed to look like 19th-century portraits in which Arab men would pose with the latest new technologies, but in Ghadirian's photographs, women hold Coca-Cola cans and boom boxes - things that aren't really state-of-the-art anymore - and look out at the viewer with a defiant expression. They are wearing leggings that are tighter than those which would be acceptable in modern Iran. The idea, Weiss suggests, "is to show that things [in Iran] are less free now than they were 100 years ago".
The exhibition is drawn from a new joint collection acquired by the V&A and British Museum, both of which neglected contemporary Middle Eastern photography up until now. The show deals with recent political affairs - there will be two digitally altered photos of soldiers taken at Tahrir Square during the uprising in Cairo, by Nermine Hammam - but it doesn't limit itself to timeliness. Other works on show include pieces by Walid Raad that feature cars used as bombs during the Lebanese civil wars; photojournalistic reporting from the Iranian revolution by Abbas; and hand-coloured photographic portraits by the Egyptian Youssef Nabil depicting Yemeni residents of South Shields, near Newcastle in England, who are part of a community that has existed there since the 1890s.
Although there are no photographs by Emiratis in the exhibition, Weiss says that it's not due to a lack of talent, but only because "you can't have everything". Both she and Al Dowayan emphasise the importance of Dubai's commercial galleries in allowing artists across the Middle East to flourish. Al Dowayan says that these galleries have allowed an art scene to grow around it, with art fairs, local museums and foundations, residency programmes, auction houses and a biennale. "This strong and evolving commercial structure," she says, "is what allowed me to become a full-time artist."
* Light from the Middle East: New Photography will be on show at London's Victoria and Albert Museum from November 13 until April 7, 2013.
* If you're in London this August, see a larger collection of Nermine Hammam's works at the Mosaic Rooms in South Kensington. The exhibition, called Cairo Year One, places Egyptian soldiers against idyllic, colourful rural backdrops and is open until August 24.
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