IoS photography review: Light from the Middle East, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

4.00

This exhibition is complex, intense and highly charged – portraits of a part of the world where cameras still carry the whiff of transgression

The single most important cultural fact behind Light from the Middle East is that the representation of the human form is traditionally discouraged in Islamic societies, and under the more extreme Sunni regimes – Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan under the Taliban – that discouragement is closer to a taboo. God created man, so if man represents man he is usurping God's work – that's the view of the hardliners, baldly put.

Belying the strangely simple-minded blurb at the entrance, which begins "Photography is a powerful and persuasive means of expression", the V&A's new exhibition of photography from Afghanistan to Morocco by way of Iran and Palestine is complex, intense, highly charged – in short, a string of improvised explosive devices which shock and stimulate at every turn.

Photography is roughly as old as the experience of colonial oppression in most of these countries: this most potent mode of representation was the gift of the infidels, and one can still detect the whiff of transgression that it must have carried in the early days. That's apparent in Mehraneh Atashi's arresting photo of an Iranian wrestler flexing his muscles in the zurkhana, the traditional gym, under the eyes of the portraits of a whole bevy of ayatollahs, but also under the eyes of the female photographer herself, boldly present where no woman has any business to be, her image caught in a mirror.

The tension is also there in Abbas's picture from 1979 of Iranian women, indistinguishable one from the other in their black hijabs, examining tiny photos of victims of the Shah's secret police pinned up on a board outside the occupied US Embassy. It's equally present in Taraneh Hemami's Most Wanted in which, shortly after the terror attacks on the US, she downloaded photos of "wanted" Muslims from a US government website, then scratched away at the surface of the prints to erase the facial features. The human face carries a special voltage here: in Newsha Tavakolian's Mothers of Martyrs series, Iranian mothers proudly hold gold-framed photos of their sons, "martyred" in the Iran-Iraq war – and one sees where the Islamic disquiet about icons comes from.

Most of these countries have experienced the modern era as a long series of disasters and humiliations, and the idea of progress in our sense is a sick joke at best. In a large and masterly Iranian photograph – Iranian genius dominates this show – entitled Tehran 2006, Mitra Tabrizian poses ordinary Iranians plodding bleakly about their business in a wasteland in the suburbs of Tehran; the Ayatollah Khomeini gazes down pitilessly from a hoarding. The technological perfection of this huge print is painfully at odds with the stagnant, trackless state of contemporary Iran.

There can be wistful, melancholy humour in these depictions of societies going no place fast: the heap of bricks in Yto Barrada's Bricks seems neither more nor less significant than the ugly block-like villas that dot the exhausted Tangier hillside behind it. In her sepia portraits, Shadi Ghadirian photographs her sitters in the style that was popular during Iran's Qajar period, which ended in 1925, posed glumly in front of vaguely classical backdrops, wearing the inevitable veil – but clasping a Pepsi can, a bicycle, an audio-cassette player. Atiq Rahimi's experience of his native Kabul, when he returned in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban, was too upsetting for humour: two decades of war had reduced his elegant city to ruins. The only way he could bear to shoot it was with the sort of camera he would have used as a child, a Box Brownie. These tiny, fuzzy images are like pages from an old album abandoned as the bombs began to fall.

Not everything here is a success. Syrian Issa Touma's series on an annual Sufi procession in northern Syria, shot over the course of 10 years, may well be an important ethnographical document but fails to capture the intensity of the event. One can guess what Raeda Saadeh was trying to achieve by wrapping her presumably naked body in Palestinian newspapers and posing approximately like a classical European nude, but the effect is unintentionally comic.

Mutely powerful, by contrast, is the other Palestinian contribution, by Taysir Batniji: a series of identical portraits of the watchtowers built by Israel to oversee the Palestinians penned into their Territories. The variable quality of the resulting pictures was because Batniji, resident in Gaza, was forbidden to visit the West Bank to shoot the rest of the series and had to delegate the job. That says almost as much about the subject as the pictures themselves.

Until 7 April (020-7942 2000)

Critic's Choice

In a single year, modern art took several leaps forward, thanks to Archipenko, di Chirico, Picasso, Duchamp and others. Their works, some influenced by earlier iconoclasts such as Matisse and created on the eve of the First World War, are brought together in 1913: The Shape of Time at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (to 7 Feb).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone