‘True to Life ?’ is a poignant and brave contemporary photography exhibition currently running at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It explores ideas of modernity in the Middle East, with a particular focus upon twenty-first century women. Its pieces unite icons that are typically associated with the East or the West. The viewer is left to decide whether the photographs emphasize the dichotomy between these symbolic icons, or the compatibility between global cultures. The title of the exhibition itself shows how simplicities such as punctuation can change the entire meaning of words; “True to Life” as an exhibition would be a bold statement that would change the way you think as you view the images- accepting that this is the realities of life of those depicted in the images and that there is no more to it, however the use of the question mark really challenges you to reconsider the real as you look upon the lives illustrated in the various images and compare it to the actualities of our own lives.
Born in Tehran 1974, Shadi Ghadirian’s work is the first that you come to in the exhibition and in my opinion one of the best and most memorable pieces. The series ‘Qajar’ (1988) shows historic portraits of Iranian woman with a modern twist incorporated into the scene. “With their painted backdrops, vintage clothing and grey tones, Ghadirian’s images could be mistaken for historic Iranian portrait photographs. In contrast, the contemporary props indicate the modernity of these images and also represent items forbidden in some way in today’s Iran. Through this contrast of the historic and contemporary, Ghadirian comments on female identities. The props suggest that in private Iranian women have personal aspirations, whereas in public they are expected to adhere to conservative traditions.” This body of work has a strong political message on what ‘the real’ is to women across the world yet also what women expect the real to be for fellow females. It has very cleverly challenged us and our acceptance that gender be able to define those in other cultures – it is not “the real” that Iranian women cannot enjoy the same pleasures as western women, it is ‘a real’ that humans have created for themselves, it is not in our genetics but simply a language we have been born into that we accept as reality and do nothing about- we do not perhaps even consider it until photographs such as these challenge our own perceptions and make us question who is speaking this language and way of life for us.
These snapshot-style images of a party could have been taken anywhere in the world. Here they expose the underground youth culture of Tehran but also stress the need to protect the identities of the revellers. Amirali Ghasemi has made these youths reality become a universal one, one that can be shared and experienced by those all over the world. By removing the individualities of the subjects Ghasemi has made this body of work accessible to a much wider audience who are then able to envisage their own personal accounts of similar scenes from their own memories. “This project was Ghasemi’s response when he encountered recent “Media” images of his hometown Tehran being distorted and pushed toward black and white extremes and being dominated by images of the veil and suppression. They portray a young population who, instead of looking towards expanding its social liberty, is having fun enjoying the last years of a reformist state in power. Tehran remixed is also an attempt to break through and to experiment with documentary photography and manipulate it in order to tell stories without ignoring people’s privacy.”
The ability to tell stories through documentary photography is a gift many photographers take for granted- myself included. The word documentary gives your work something far stronger than belonging to a genre of art- it gives it credibility. The connotations of the word documentary have allowed documentarians to publish work without having to vouch for its authenticity, and with this comes a trust between viewer and photographer that goes unchallenged whilst the viewer is blissfully unaware of any means of manipulation; they do not question what they see, simply accept it as a factual documentation. Ghasemi has essentially brought this to light and is screaming out at the innocence of some viewers that this project “was created to visualize the other side of Tehran in contrast to the prejudicial images often produced in international media on a mass scale. Tehran Remixed deals with the concept of public versus private, by flipping through images of mega city’s unseen version of social life by means of content.” Just because you see “the real” depicted in the papers does not mean that that is the finality of the situation. Documentary photography shows only the story the photographer wants to share, it is up to the viewer to broaden their mind and accept that there are always two sides of the story.
Şükran Moral, ‘Despair’. “In this image, brightly-coloured birds, what Moral calls ‘digital nightingales’, perch on a group of migrant workers huddled in a boat. According to the artist, in Turkish literature nightingales are a symbol of hope, love and separation. The men and boys are shown in black-and-white, at the mercy of their situation. The birds, however, are free to fly away.” Floating precariously in a tiny boat, these men migrating from Turkey’s shores risk everything in the search for a better life. If the boat sinks, the colourful digital nightingales perched around them can fly away, whereas the men themselves will surely perish. Moral regards these migrants as the ‘new slaves of today’ living on the margins of society. Through her work she gives them ‘identity, expression and soul’. I love the juxtaposition between the electric birds and the blacks and whites of the men, on first glance the piece really challenges you to stop and examine it closely- leaning in I was able to see each pixilation of the digital nightingales and this almost enhanced their likability and your relief that these men’s lives will live on with the fluttering of their wings. I really like the concept of digitally editing images so that it is obvious that you have done so- you are in no where deceiving the viewer, just making them view your work on an entirely different level.
“Hassan Hajjaj is inspired by fashion photography, while also mocking its methods. He creates playful juxtapositions between global brand names and local motifs such as veils and babouches (traditional Moroccan slippers). The result is an exuberant collision of the stereotypical symbols of western consumerism and Middle Eastern tradition. The frames, which Hajjaj constructs from recycled materials, transform the photographs into three-dimensional, sculptural objects.”
The joyful, fashion-conscious Moroccan women in these images strike poses like models in magazines such as Elle or Vogue. Hajjaj presents these women wearing traditional dress but in versions that are emblazoned with the symbols of western consumer culture. The sculptural frames are made from recycled materials. They incorporate familiar brands but are identifiably Middle Eastern because of their Arabic writing. Together frame and image are a fusion of Arabic and Western worlds that may challenge our perceptions of Morocco and the women who live there. The relationship between modern consumer culture and traditional Muslim dress is explored in Hajjaj’s, ‘Saida in Green’. A Moroccan woman in a niqab poses like a model in Vogue, her clothes emblazoned with logos from Western designer Louis Vuitton. The frame is constructed from a recycled Middle Eastern tyre, perhaps highlighting the disposable nature of Western consumer culture. This fusion is repeated elsewhere in the exhibition. In Hajjaj’s ‘Jama Fna Angels’ the frame is assembled from aluminium cans, aerosol cans and glass bottles bearing Arabic writing, whilst the women in the photograph wear Louis Vuitton shoes. The use of traditional dress and westernisation emphasises the effect of two opposite realities adjoining together to become of one in which is creates a new, funky version of reality that challenges perceptions and gets people really thinking and intrigued about what they are faced with.
“In her photographs, videos and performances, Raeda Saadeh assumes various roles to explore issues of displacement, gender and identity, with particular reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here the artist lies in a pose that recalls 19th-century European paintings of recycling nudes. These often featured non-European women and ‘Orientalist’ costumes and scenery. Saadeh is encased in Palestinian newspapers, which conceal her body from neck to ankle while revealing its contours. The covering is both flimsy and apparently immobilising, resembling a papier-mâché body cast. Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” In ‘Who will make me real?’ (2003), Saadeh poses for a self-portrait. Her body language parodies popular conceptions of Orientalist harems, yet she wears only Palestinian newspapers reporting deaths on the Gaza strip thus making an explicit political comment on the current affairs. This depiction of Palestinian politic’s on a woman’s body is a statement on Saadeh’s daily struggle to survive life in Jerusalem. The title of the piece “Who will make me real” highlights the struggles faced by women living in the area. Will it take for them to literally cover their female forms in the names of the deceased men of the area for their existence to be acknowledged and their voices heard? Are they judged real or not by the men they know rather than on their own integrity? Her sexual positioning in the photograph is a direct commentary on how men perceive their women should be and what is needed in order for men to take interest in what women have to say. Saadeh has gotten their attention and now she’s captured their interest.
Further pieces of interest: