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).

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own