'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.


©Raeda Saadeh, Who will make me real? (2003)


'True to Life ?' demonstrates the lengths that some female photographers go to when expressing their political voices. In 'Who will make me real?' (2003), Raeda 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. This implies that in order to make such tragedies seem relevant to a global audience, she has to literally dress up and almost sexualize the stark facts. Women are often cast as supressed voices in popular portrayals of the Middle East; in 'True to Life ?' female photographers contribute to political debates using their art.

 

©Mehraneh Atashi, Bodiless I (2004)


'Bodiless I' by Mehraneh Atashi, another female photographer, can be read as an alternative self-portrait which comments upon notions of masculinity and femininity. It portrays a large man in an Iranian wrestling gym, with Astashi only visible in the small corner of a mirror. Atashi portrays her struggle to squeeze into a masculine environment. This begs the question: are masculinity and femininity such polarized opposites, or is there room for both within a typically macho culture?


©Hassan Hajjaj, Saida in Green (2000)


The relationship between modern consumer culture and traditional Muslim dress is explored in Hassan 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.

 

©Hassan Hajjaj, Jama Fna Angels (2000)

 

This fusion is repeated elsewhere in the exhibition. In Hajjaj’s 'Jama Fna Angels' the frame is assembled from cans bearing Arabic writing, whilst the women in the photograph wear Louis Vuitton shoes. In Shadi Ghadirian’s 'Qajar', a historic portrait of an Iranian woman is given a modern twist as she holds a Pepsi can. 'True to Life ?' may be repeating this idea in so many ways because the artists are trying to emphasize the normality of coupling traditional religious dress with consumer culture.

 

© Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar (1998)

 

It is doubtful whether one exhibition can even scratch the surface of the complex relationship between traditional religious culture and modern consumerism within the Middle East. Nevertheless, the artists within this exhibition are globally renowned for their sophisticated representation of these themes. 'True to Life ?' has been curated using works donated by the British Museum and the V & A’s Art Fund collection. The involvement of such significant institutions implies that a deeper understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern photography is vital to public interest. 'True to Life ?' will be running at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until November 12th 2014.