Light From the Middle East, V&A

The V&A’s first photographic exhibition, Light from the Middle East, showcases works from artists across North Africa to Central Asia. And this week, hosted the latest in a series of special Priceless cultural events from MasterCard.

Sipping on passion fruit and mango infused cocktails served in golden chalices, draping on oversized plush cushions whilst listening to exotic music and feasting on aromatic delights, we’re offered the decadence of Arabia. The romanticised vision of the Arab world comes to life through mystical storytelling of a Damascus magical folktale punctuated by traditional drums.

This is all in stark contrast to the exhibition itself where it is not just about the beauty, quality, framing or lighting of the picture itself, but rather the story behind it, how it was obtained and what it symbolises. For instance, an image of an Iranian man working out in a traditional Iranian gym where women are normally excluded, taken by female photographer Mehraneh Atashi, who we can see reflected in the mirror.

In the Resisting section of the exhibition, photographs are tampered with or manipulated to show home truths. ‘The Break’ and ‘Armed Innocence’ show the vulnerability of soldiers called upon in the wake of protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The pictures of the young soldiers are digitally altered and transported to idyllic surroundings with green pastures and snowcaped mountains. However, their faces appear blank and expressionless as they are forced into the unknown and counteracted by the ‘wish you were here’ background. Similarly, this tainted escapism is portrayed in ‘Wonder Beirut’, a collection of pre-civil war Beirut postcards showing it as an appealing holiday destination, however the postcards have been burnt and destroyed, blemished reminders of what it once was.

Women play a huge role in this exhibition, both in front and behind the camera. ‘Who will make me real?’ sees Palestinian photographer Raeda Saadeh drawing on images of the past to make statements about the present, posing seductively, mimicking 10th century European nudes, yet at the same time she is restricted by the Palestinian newspapers mummifying her body leaving only neck and feet exposed.

‘Jama Fna Angels’ shows a clandestine catwalk, as four glamorous Moroccan women adopt fashion poses in a rubble laden alleyway. Smiling seductively yet mischievously through their chiffon veils proudly showing off their traditional albeit designer Moroccan slippers. Women’s secret Western aspirations and struggles with tradition are further highlighted in the Qajar series from Iranian born Shadi Ghadirian showing women wearing Qajar period costume (1786-1925) in sepia toned pictures taken in 1974, each of them holding desirable objects such as a Pepsi can, a radio,  a mountain bike and sporting RayBans.

On exiting the exhibit I saw the only woman in Middle Eastern dress at the event, wearing a colourful headscarf, and again looking slightly lost and disorientated yet somehow yearning to fit into the evening’s festivities. Art imitating life?

Priceless London offers all MasterCard cardholders that register on pricelesslondon.co.uk exclusive experiences and privileged access to the very best of the capital’s music, theatres, museums, restaurants, retail, sport and attractions.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography is open until Sunday 7 April 2013 at:

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road

Photo by Alistair Veryard

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