Light from the Middle East – Victoria & Albert Museum

The Middle East is coming alive in South West London. The world’s greatest museum of art and design is playing temporary home to 30 artists from 13 countries across the region as the Victoria and Albert Museum presents the first major exhibition of its kind: Light from the Middle East.

Using photography as the window into a somewhat unknown world, Light from the Middle East explores the social, political, individual and united stories of people and places that some viewers may never have been privy to before. As well as calling into question what a photograph can really portray.

Opening up and laying bare, the exhibition is structured into three parts and three artistic functions of photography; Recording, Reframing and Resisting.

In Recording, the artists claim photography as an accurate method of documenting and commemorating people, places and events only to question the reliability and truth in this ‘capacity to record’, appropriating different methods and techniques to challenge the concept of a recorded image as exactly what we see in front of us.


Manal Al-Dowayan, ‘I am an Educator’, 2005–7

One of the most striking of these is Manal Al-Dowayan’s ‘I am an Educator’. The Saudi Arabian photographer known for her use of black and white medium, presents an image that at first appears as a portrait. Drawn in with only the subject’s eyes in view, she is adorned with the weight of traditional jewellery. Holding a slate that reads ‘ignorance is darkness’, we learn that the individual is an English Literature professor, as Al-Dowayan seeks to explore identity and the role of women in contemporary Saudi society through her series ‘I am’.

Elsewhere, Tal Shochat of Israel, applies the method of studio portraiture to photographing trees; taking an element of nature and creating an artificial world in which to capture it. She creates a constructed image that, although beautiful and real at first, would not naturally occur.


Newsha Tavakolian, from the series ‘Mothers of Martyrs’ 2006. Digital c-print, 50 x 76 cm

While Shochat creates constructs between what we see and what is real, Newsha Tavakolian of Teran tells personal stories through her photographs, particularly recognised for capturing elements of the lives of women across the Middle East that may otherwise go unseen by the Western world. Her series ‘Mother of Martyrs’ uses double portraiture to show the realities of war that crosses cultures and generations while also striking on personal loss of mothers, now elderly, who clutch pictures of their young sons killed in the1980-88 Iran/Iraq war, remaining forever young.


Youssef Nabil, Detail from the series ‘The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields’
2006. Hand-coloured gelatin silver print, 39 x 27 cm


In Reframing, each photographer mimics or assumes an artistic technique of the past in order to make a statement about the present. Be it hand painting over black and white shots in the style of mid 20th centenary Egyptian portraiture, or in the stylisation of photographs from the old world Qajar period (1786–1925). In her 1998 series, Shadi Ghadirian, of Tehran, Iran, assumes this style to explore the uneven balance of tradition and modernity that still holds for Iranian women today.

Shadi Ghadirian, From the series ‘Qajar’ 1998. Gelatin silver bromide print, 30 x 24 cm

Similarly, Hassan Hajjaj from Morocco draws inspiration from fashion photography while simultaneously teasing it, pitching global fashion identities such as Louis Vuitton alongside local signifiers to ‘collide western consumerism with middle eastern tradition.’

Hassan Hajjaj, Saida in Green, 2000. Digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55 cm


In Resisting, the most abstract and obscure images of the exhibition, the photographer questions whether a photograph can tell the truth, and use alternative techniques to distil and alter images to explore amongst others, the concepts of censorship and control.

In his series Party, Iranian born Amirali Ghasemi takes snapshot style images of human interaction and monochromatically colour blocks over visible flesh such as the face or arms selecting what is seen in these these casual, seemingly private images, in response to the censorship of public images in imported magazines in Iran ‘where skirts are lengthened and womens bodies covered with black marker.’

Jowhara Al Saud, ‘Airmail’, from the series ‘Out of Line’2008. C-type print, 50.8 x 61 cm

Daringly, contemporary Saudi Arabian artist Jowhara Al Saud in the first of her three Out of Line series’, scratches out the lines of images from her own personal photographs, keeping her subjects anonymous ‘by omitting faces and skin’ she says ‘began as an exploration of censorship in Saudi Arabia and its effects on visual communication’ and  ‘allowed me to comment on the stigma attached to bringing the “personal portrait”, commonly reserved for the private domestic space, into a public sphere’. Like fellow featured artist Amirali Ghasemi she applies the language of the censors to her own work, in an attempt to turn the concept on its head.

Both thoughtful and thought provoking, this exhibition of beautiful and tangible portraits of a moment in the history, society and culture of individual lives of the Middle East, bring a reality to a world that from South West London can seem very far away.



Images from the Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum