Light from the Middle East: New Photography is a free exhibition that is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 7th April 2013. It shows over 90 works from 30 artists, across 13 countries, and is part of the joint project by the V&A and the British Museum to expand their collection of Middle Eastern art and design by developing the contemporary photographic area.

I was especially interested to see this show as I lived for many years in the Middle East a while back and am always keen to know in what directions contemporary art is moving there. I was not disappointed.

The show is divided into three sections, named Recording, Reframing and Resisting. In the light of the recent Arab Spring you might expect these titles and anticipate their content. But I felt that the over-arching themes of the exhibition seemed to be deconstructed tradition, death and women.

The main reason that I was keen to see the show was the inclusion of the Wonder Beirut series. A few years ago I was intrigued to come across a Lebanese photographer, Abdallah Farah, who had had a career taking photos for tourist postcards of Beirut in its glamorous heyday. After the Civil War he was so disturbed by the aftermath that he burnt his negatives. These were reprinted by two contemporary artists, Joana Hadjithomas and Kalil Joreige. The penny slowly dropped that the whole project, photographer included, was fictitious. But this just made the artworks even more intriguing. Three of these burnt postcards are on display in the current exhibition; large scale, garish colours, twisted and half melted by the burning of the negatives. The morphing adds a surreal and sinister dimension to the images of smiling, yellow-bathing-suited water skiers at play and traffic busying around the posh shops and restaurants. Similar art projects with postcards have also been undertaken in New York after 9/11. See more about this project here.

Tradition is in evidence in the exhibition through many of the conventions of Arabic portrait photography. The image above is from a series by Hassan Hajaj, using traditional clothes mixed with fashion-photo conventions. The overall effect is actually quite trendy! And Hajaj uses drink cans or tyres (above) and other found objects to make the frames 3-dimensional.

Shadi Ghadirian’s monotone series, Qajar, shows women in traditional Iranian poses, each with an object to symbolise her aspirations. But these objects are now cans of coke, sunglasses and mobile phones.

The Mothers of Martyrs series by Newsha Tavakolian, depicts women holding framed photos of their sons who were killed in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The shock of these sedate images is that the women who were photographed in 2006 look so old compared to their sons who were young at the time of their deaths. The harshness of the loss of a loved one seems to have stopped the lives of these women in their tracks.

Taysir Batniji, from Palestine, depicts row after row of “portraits” of Israeli watch towers. The irony is that Batniji is not permitted to travel to some of the Palestinian areas to take the photos and so he has had to delegate this task to another.

Several of the photographs use digital techniques to verge on the illustrative. There are two sets of images that focus on identity and anonymity. One series shows party-goers indulging in a good time, dancing and drinking. But, to emphasise that they could be punished if found out, their faces and bodies have been blanked out. In one photo a ghostly white anonymous hand pauses mid-dance in front of its photographic shadow. The images have an appearance of badly-designed adverts, moving the real people into eerie stereotypes.  Jowhara Al Saud also uses the blanked-out face motif; drawing over images of her friends and family to create almost cartoon like narratives – see above. Is that a last desperate hug, or just a friendly gesture? Is that girl bending forward, hand raised in distress or laughter?

Nermine Hammam also manipulates her photos of soldiers in Tahrir Square in Cairo 2011. She felt that they looked distressed and wished to be elsewhere. So in this Uphekka series she has manipulated them onto dreamy, happy-place backgrounds – Mount Fuji or Alpine peacefulness, filled with blossom. Now the young men look more meditative than anxious.

This is a really exciting and forward-moving exhibition. I was there, as usual, with graphic design students, and I was delighted to see how much there was to inspire them and motivate their photography, illustration and general design concepts.

By the way, if you are interested in Middle Eastern art and design in general you may like to sign up to newsletters from Universes in Universe, which will keep you up-to-date with exhibitions, news, competitions and bursaries related to Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American art.

Image credits:

Top: ‘Wonder Beirut #13, Modern Beirut, International Centre of Water-Skiing’, from the series ‘Wonder Beirut’, 1997-2006. C-print mounted on aluminium with face mounting, 70.5 x 105.4 cm, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Courtesy of the artists and CRG Gallery, New York and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris. Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

Upper Middle: Saida in Green. Digital c-print and tyre frame, 65 x 55 cm, 2000, Hassan Hajjaj, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

Lower Middle: ‘Airmail’, from the series ‘Out of Line’, 2008. C-type print, 50.8 x 61 cm, Jowhara AlSaud, Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

Bottom: The break, From the series Upekkha, 2011  Artist: Nermine Hammam  Date: 2011. Archival inkjet print, 60 x 90 cm  Credit line: Copyright V&A. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum  Special terms: Light from the Middle East: New Photography

All images supplied by the V&A Press Office