Photography from the Middle East surprises at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 19 June 2014

Exhibition review: True to Life?: New Photography from the Middle East, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, until November 2 2014

Colour photo of a Middle Eastern woman with a portrait of her martyred son
Mother of Martyrs, 2006 by Newsha Tavakolian© the artist / Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
With a stunning collection of work by Pre-Raphaelites, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has as many dead white males as you could ever hope to see. Right now, however, residents of this multi-cultural city will find a counterweight to mainstream art history with a two gallery show of Middle Eastern photography.

It is also an antidote to the mainstream media. The turbulent region, Morocco to Afghanistan, does after all have an image problem. So while the news agencies focus on conflict, repression and fanaticism, the 14 photographers in this show cut through the stereotypes to reveal a region every bit as diverse as our own Sceptered Isle.

For many the veil has come to be a one-size fits all symbol for the Islamic world and representations of women feature heavily in the show.

Shadi Ghadirian’s subjects all wear headscarves, but each holds a deconstructive prop which defies the expectations of women in this part of the world. These include a mirror, a mountain bike, a Pepsi and so on. These black and white shots are set up as vintage but the take out is immediate.

Confronting us from another wall is Raeda Saadeh, who has been called the Islamic Cindy Sherman. Saadeh has photographed herself in a recumbent position which brings to mind orientalist fantasy about hareems and odalisques.

But this Palestine artist meets our gaze head on and she is dressed, fully, in regional newspapers carrying death notices. It is a powerful, discomfiting statement.

A black and white vintage photo of a Middle Eastern woman holding a Pepsi
From the series Qajar, 1998 by Shadi Ghadirian© the artist / Victoria & Albert Museum
Images of the past, or the past preserved in the present, enrich the picture further.  Photographer and woman, Mehraneh Atashi has gained access to one of Iran’s most restricted boy’s clubs: a male wrestling gym where physical and spiritual fitness are pursued in equal measure.

The shot chosen for this show is of a heroic and gleeful, musclebound man, who seems oblivious to the fact he is posing for Atashi. She appears as a disruptive element in a full length mirror behind him.

But three of the most memorable images from the Middle East are not from the Middle East at all, but rather from the migrant communities in Paris, South Shields and an unspecified destination in Western Europe.

The first of these is an edgy bit of inner city reportage in which you wonder how Mohamed Bourouissa got away with his camera intact. Then you learn that this is a scene from the Parisian Banlieue is a staged scene using friends and acquaintances.

Egyptian Youssef Nabil has meanwhile built links with the Yemeni community on Tyneside. In hybrid dress, mixing west and east, his elder statesmen pose for individual portraits with a dignity that, one imagines, has been hard won (These men were among the first migrants to arrive in South Shields).

Nabil has coloured each of the photographs by hand, giving them a movie-star sheen, and the deft painting is one of the most accomplished aspects of the show.

There’s more painting in a large piece by Sükran Moral. Somehow the Turkish photographer has got to the prow of a rowboat taking refugees across a stretch of the Aegean.

Their varied expressions, somewhere between determined and desperate, are set off by a flock of nightingales which perch all over this group portrait. The informative plaque reveals that the birds signify hope in Turkey but the title of the piece is Despair.

That’s a mood which might unite both West and (middle) East right now as conflicts in Iraq and Syria draw the rest of the world into their orbit. Taraneh Hemami just about sums it up with a direct piece called Most Wanted.

This takes some ten suspects on a US government mugshot poster and degrades the image to the point where it is little more than a collection of veils and beards. It’s international relations reduced to an absurd degree.

If given a choice between reading a newspaper for seven days and checking out this show, you might learn more from the latter. Visitors may well reflect that art shows do more good than airstrikes. True to Life? Is inclusive, informative and impactful.
  • Admission free. Open 10am-5pm daily (from 10:30am Friday).

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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