Light from the Middle East at London’s V&A “offers insights from within cultures that are more often photographed and reported from the outside” says Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, it is not that simple and there is much more to the exhibition than the luxuries of an insight. Apart from the images from Abbas, a veteran photojournalist, most of the works in the exhibition were making myriad commentaries. Even though cameras do lie, we all know that now, Abbas tries his best to present an unloaded reportage. However all the other artists in the exhibition, most of whom seem to come from the generation after his (Abbas), embark on a deliberate dialogue some more vehemently than others, using the medium of photography.
It would be challenging to accept the commentary of John Jurayj for example, as an insight on the Middle East. Jurayj, though of Lebanese decent, was born and raised in the USA. At the event, Light from the Middle East: Artists in Conversation, a gig to launch the exhibition, Jurayj presented the case for his output on display. It was interesting listening to Jurayj tease about his inspiration, motif and hence his audience. While his motif might have hinted at the Middle East, may be specifically Lebanon, his artistic intention and notion of an audience was less about a window on the East and more a reflection on the West. He was not talking about any good old passive West, but the very West, which had coined the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’.
In terms of taking a swipe at the West, while Jurayj hinted, Taraneh Hemami was more blatant. Hemami’s commentary was more about being a member of what might be seen as a contemporarily and globally reviled people. Light from the Middle East reveals a people dispersed across the globe, who seem beset on all sides. At home you are faced with physical and primal danger if you were a woman, an artist, were not straight, were on the wrong side of the ruling political elite or worst still all of the above. Abroad the danger continued unless as Jurayj put it, at the launch event, you were able “to pass (as non-Middle Eastern)”.
The issues raised in the exhibition are multi-layered and complex. It reveals as much about the West as it does the Middle East. The questions raised are fundamental but not basic . What does the Middle East aspire to? How are those aspirations defined at home and abroad? What challenges are posed to the aspirations at home and, especially, abroad? The exhibition is not merely an “insight”; it is a commentary on the Middle East, by a not-so-conveniently defined Middle East, aimed not just at the West but also at itself (the Middle East). It simultaneously digs at a West and challenges a not-necessarily-passive non-Middle Eastern audience. ‘Simples’ it is not!
Light from the Middle East: New Photography is on at the V&A, until 7 April 2013.
By Depo Olukotun
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