The regions of the Middle East have undergone societal and political turmoil over the past number of decades, which has led to questions around culture, identity and the strict religious beliefs held. Under-represented viewpoints from contemporary Middle Eastern artists allow outsiders to experience a more personalised interpretation of the under-documented. These are the artists whose lives straddle traditional regional experiences and the globalised Western influence. Here we look at seven artists from the region baring all.
Living and working in Tehran, Shadi Ghadirian uses photography to examine the position of women in Iranian society. Drawing from her own experience, she documents modern women living under the Sharia law, juxtaposing traditional values with contemporary society. In her “Ghajar” series, the photographer plays on this idea by reconstructing 19th Century photographs – the first portraits permitted by religious law. Ghadirian sets her subjects against antique backdrops, and uses ancient furnishings and costume to depict the conventional. She then incorporates contemporary props into the image, giving her defiant-looking female subjects boom-boxes and vaccum-cleaners to hold. Using subtle humour, Ghadirian aptly highlights the culture clash that is going on to this day in her homeland, and questions traditions effect on progress.
Lebanese photographer, Rania Matar documents her own life through others – her experience of growing up during a bloody civil war is an important factor influencing her projects. Tending to focus her lens on women and girls, her series “A Girl and Her Room”, concentrates on the idea of cultural identity and adolescence. Through penetrating the personal space of the bedroom, Matar aims to convey the idea of a universal teenager by comparing and contrasting the rooms of the teenage girls across her native Middle East and the USA, where she now calls home. Similarities in the personal spaces of all the girls she photographed, Matar’s project shows that there is an underlying familiarity in the sense that all of them are going through the exact same state of transition and often, portray the same interests through their personal belongings. The recording of the spaces as extensions of identity is a nod to the contemporary youth society in the Middle East, and like Shadi Ghadirian’s work, that attests to the progressiveness in the region.
Boushra Almutawakel is the first ever recognised female photographer of Yemen, and holds a reputation for challenging the cultural controversies surrounding her country. Inspired by her strict religious upbringing, Almutawakel is concerned with perceptions of Arabs and Muslims, and tackles issues of gender and stereotypes through her photography. Concentrating on the controversial issue of the veiling of women in her culture, Almutawakel uses the idea of the Hijab in many of her projects. Her ongoing series “Hijab Series” explores the many ways in which the veil is worn, but also examines how it affects identity and questions the statement it projects among a varied audience. The photographer has also made bold statements around gender equality, again, using the traditional veil as a means to do so. In her series “What If”, she points out the similarities in dress between male and female Arabians, and wittily reverses gender roles by shooting portraits of men wearing the Hijab. Although the series has received criticism from many who couldn’t see the humour, it was welcomed by a number of female Hijab wearers feeling it important to challenge ideas regarding the custom.
Palestinian photojournalist, Ahmed Jadallah has been working for the international news agency, Reuters, for 25 years. Jadallah’s first big story centred on his countries leader, Yasser Arafat, and although the photographer progressed on to shoot Libya during the revolution and the crisis in Egypt, his main point of focus throughout his career has been the Gaza War. Having shot over ten thousand photographs on this topic for Reuters, the photographer continues to record his war-torn home on a daily basis, with Palestinian funerals and Israeli violence centre to his documentation. In 2003, the photographer was awarded the World Press Photo award for his image depicting the horror of a suicide bomb attack on the largest refugee camp in the Strip, a photograph that almost cost him his legs to a tank shell.
Born in 1964, as a boy Samer Mohdad was caught in the throws of the Lebanese civil war. Experiencing extreme violence and the deaths of multiple family members and neighbours, his traumatic childhood led him to turn to photography to document “the hopes of normal people living in a civil war”. Working on long-term projects to highlight the troubles instead of using photojournalism, Mohdad’s photographs have the personalised approach of an insider, and concentrate on the aftermath and effects instead of the act of war as shown by most magazine assigned reporters. His photographs record the transformations of the Arab world through political, social and religious upheaval, in the documentation of the less-represented idea of community in Arab regions. Most notably in “Mes Arabies”, Mohdad’s work captures the realities of every-day life, in a non-judgmental, almost street-photography kind of style.
Marrakesh’s answer to Andy Warhol, Hassan Hajjaj takes influence from his current hometown of London and his North African heritage to produce his striking pop-art. Merging his work as a fashion designer with his photography, the multi-disciplinary artist’s esteemed series “’Kesh Angels” is a tribute to the biker culture in Morocco, and is also a nod to the integration of Westernisation and the contemporary in traditional Arab society. Hajjaj’s brightly coloured, starkly patterned veils and djellaba that decorate the confident young women posing on motorcycles celebrate a defiantly modern take on the traditional wear, and disrupt preconceived notions of Arab women. All of these portraits are framed with images of branded consumerist products, which Hajjaj arranges in a Moroccan mosaic style, furthering the unifying of Western and Middle Eastern culture through his artwork.
Dubai-based photographer Lamya Gargash documents the transforming spaces in Emirati society, investigating traditions in culture through unwanted buildings. Gargash is interested in the rapid growth of the UAE and the effect that has had on Dubai’s sense of identity, which is especially evident in her series “Presence”. Focusing on the interiors of homes built during the economic boom 30 years ago, the photographer records the abandoned and out-of-date fittings and furniture as a by-product of modernity and the extinction of an era of culture, questioning the idea of conformity consumerism. Furthering this idea in her later series, “Majlis”, Gargash investigates the merging of traditional and modern furnishings in the room where Emiratis generally meet to socialise in the home. Concentrating on the preserving of wall hangings and floor seating with contemporary air-conditioning and TVs, the photographs highlight a lack of authenticity through globalisation.