The visibility of contemporary Arab and Iranian art in museums, biennales and auctions houses is the result of a handful of curators. In London, Rose Issa was the first one to organise contemporary Middle Eastern art exhibitions. It was a radically new approach to a region that had always been framed by stalemate political analysis of war, terror, occupation and corruption, mainly by Western pundits and academics. By focusing on visual culture and the experience of people living there, Middle Easterners spoke for themselves. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that a movement of home-grown art scenes were acknowledged and encouraged, internationally as well as locally.
Jowhara Al Saud
The artist monographs and anthologies Issa produces fulfil a similar function in providing a much needed space for artists’ works and words at a time when visually-led books are too expensive for recession-hit publishers to produce. In this so-called season of Arab Spring, political engagement emerges as a main theme among the 31 artists featured in Arab Photography Now, a companion to Issa’s 2008 book, Iranian Photography Now.
In the forefront are the Palestinians. The self-portraits of Raeda Saadeh, known as the "Cindy Sherman of Jerusalem”, show the artist in different guises: Little Red Riding Hood, an uber-mother figure knitting among the ruins of a demolished Palestinian house or Mona Lisa with an Israeli settlement in the backdrop. The sometimes out of focus and badly lit photographs of Israeli watchtowers bring home the difficulties for artists in Palestine. Taysir Batniji who cites Bernd and Hilla Becher as an inspiration (Donovan Wiley’s British Army watchtowers in Northern Ireland should also be referenced) was born in Gaza. Banned by the Israeli authorities from travelling in the West Bank, Batniji commissioned another Palestinian photographer to take the images reproduced in the book. According to the artist, “Aestheticisation becomes a vivid political challenge… in the creation of these photographs…”
Some artists resist politics and concentrate on glamour (Youssef Nabil) or kitsch (Hassan Hajjaj). However art, like great literature, is a window onto our times, and soldiers and their victims occupy the heart of Arab Photography Now. A moving counterpoint to both Nermine Hammam’s Tahrir Square soldiers who have been transported to bright pastoral scenes and Jehad Nga’s moody embedded photographs of the men and women of the 5-7 Cavalry Troop B, is Farah Nosh’s black and white portraits of ordinary Iraqis maimed during the war. Nosh wrote that she started her project after seeing the media coverage of wounded veterans in the US.
Sometimes photography is powerful for what it doesn’t show, as in Gilbert Hage’s swimmers in the Mediterranean, escapees of Lebanon’s brutal civil war, or the traced photographs of Jowhara Al Saud whose blanked out and blemish-free pictures of men and women mixing freely at parties in Saudi Arabia bypass the country’s draconian censorship laws.
This is a significant moment in the Middle East when even a photographer like Lara Baladi known for her fantasia in the desert – her hookah-smoking, fez-wearing caterpillar graces the book’s cover – captures the defining panorama of Egypt’s 25 January revolution. During a month when Tahrir Square filled once again with protestors, art in the Middle East remains in a contested space where real life is stranger and more powerful than fiction.
Arab Photography Now is published by Kehrer Verlag