In the minds of many Europeans, even those who are apparently quite worldly, the Middle East often remains envisaged and discussed as a basically backward part of the world. We are so used to hearing about it in connection to insular political disputes, religious divisions or ethnic strife, that it can be hard to remember that this is not all that this part of the world consists of.
A recent surge in interest in Middle Eastern art, and particularly photography, looks like a promising opportunity to challenge some of these preconceptions, and it’s a growth that major institutions appear to be taking note of. In the UK the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Light from the Middle East was a showcase of some of the visually vibrant and conceptually engaged photography being produced across the region. More recently Somerset House has launched a major exhibition of work by photographers from Iran, which likewise has been a welcome reminder that there is far more to that country than religious fundamentalism and nuclear weapons.
Another contribution in a similar vein is the new book View from the Inside, a survey of photography and media art from thirteen countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Some nationalities inevitably dominate in number, like Egypt, others are rather noticeable by their absence, for example Iran (perhaps a geographically justifiable exclusion) and Israel (perhaps a politically justifiable one). As Wendy Watriss points out in the books’ introduction, the definition of the Middle East always been unstable and changeable, and this is somewhat reflected in what is on show here.
Of the 49 artists included there are some that will be probably be familiar to European viewers. For example Nermine Hammam who’s series Upekkha featured in the previously mentioned V&A show. These images transplant stern or bored looking security personnel from their guard posts in Egypt’s Tahir Square into strange landscapes, beneath pristine mountains and unreal sunsets. Similarly I suspect a few viewers will recognise Hassan Hajjaj’s lively portraits, photographs which might well have been produced by the great Malian studio photographer Malick Sidibé had he chosen to use colour film rather than his signature black and white.
I suspect however that the majority of artists here might be largely unknown, and certainly for me there were lots of pleasant new discoveries. I liked for example Shadia Alem’s frenetic collages, chaotic spirals of Middle Eastern architecture and people, sometimes focusing in on a key focal point like the Kaaba. Or for another example Steve Sabella’s photo collages, which are similarly hypnotic assemblages, constructed from many small, subtlety varied photographs of the same place or object, but building together into quite mesmerising abstract patterns at times reminiscent of Islamic mosaics.
I pick out these two artists not just because I enjoyed looking at their work, but also because they highlight the reoccurring use of photo montage or photo collage techniques by the artists in this book. At a guess I would say more than half employ one of these techniques in some sense, some of them doing so quite weakly, but others with great technical and conceptual sophistication. I can’t claim to know enough about Middle Eastern art and photography to suggest whether the prevalence of this technique is coincidence, a reflection of the editor’s interests, or hints at a specific trend in Middle Eastern art and culture. I think I’ll simply leave that observation there for someone with more knowledge than me to take forward if they choose.
With the majority of work in View from the Inside being quite clearly recognisable as contemporary art, a few bodies of work stand out simply because they seem so lacking in self-conscious artifice. For example Samer Mohdad’s photographs of life in Lebanon, which range from (perhaps rather predictable) images of instability to others that are pleasantly normal, and some which are downright bizarre. My favourite shows a man training his racing camel in a swimming pool, an image which makes the famous photograph of Salvador Dali taking his pet anteater for a walk seem comparatively normal. Similarly Ahmed Jadallah’s photographs of recent protests in Yemen are unashamedly documentary. This rather more journalistic works feel a little out of place here, instead suggesting how ripe the timing perhaps is for a similar survey volume looking at Middle Eastern photojournalism in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The book also includes a number of essays that give a decent introduction to the region’s complex culture and history and the bearing of these things on the shaping of its photography. Claude Sui’s essay for example examines the increasing use of photography in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, with its employment for a range of purposes from tourism to ethnology (disciplines that are perhaps not so far removed from each other as one might initially assume). Likewise the Lebanese artist Samer Mohdad offers a more personal ‘view from the inside’ in his essay, a selective survey of photography in the Arab world, from Alhazen to the present. Critically these essays don’t treat the Middle East as entirely insular, but reflect on the influences that have tended to flow into and out of this continental crossroads.
In all this book is an interesting introduction to some of the current names and ideas in Middle Eastern photography, and one which left me hungry for more in the best sense. The remit and inclusions can feel somewhat arbitrary at times, but it’s also I suppose inevitable in a single volume survey of such a massive area. Imagine what a similar survey of say, European photography, would look like, and the fact that some countries are absent and others over-represented seems rather understandable. Equally these absences, evident as they are, are part of what left me wanting to find out much more about the work being produced in the region.