The British Museum has acquired photographs by nine Middle Eastern artists documenting topics such as the fallout of the Syrian civil war and the tragic plight of refugees.
This new acquisition takes the British Museum’s Middle East art collection in new directions capturing moments in time and engaging with recent and current histories.
UK charity, The Art Fund, supported the acquisitions as part of an ongoing initiative launched in 2009 in which a capsule collection of photographs by Middle Eastern artists was created at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum. Many of the works acquired then were shown in 2012 at the V&A in an exhibition (November 13, 2012 – April 7, 2013) with accompanying catalogue published by Steidl: ‘Light from the Middle East’.
There are two Iranian artists from different generations — Hengameh Golestan captures a demonstration in 1979 by women, while Newsha Tavakolian in her photobook based on the idea of a childhood family album, reflects on the gritty, ordinary realities of everyday encounters in Tehran.
Finally, in a direct connection with the Museum’s historic collection is the work of Emy Kat who depicts the now-derelict Jeddah house of Harry St. John ‘Abdullah’ Philby, a British civil servant and explorer who became adviser to the first ruler of Saudi Arabia. His work is a direct counterpoint to the nearly 700 archeological items collected by Philby on his travels, now held in the Museum, broadwayworld.com reported.
The Syrian artist Jaber Al Azmeh asked Syrian individuals protesting against the civil war, such as journalists, students, doctors and film-makers, to write comments on upside-down copies of The Ba’ath Newspaper, a propaganda tool of the government, for his Resurrection series (2011-present). These photographs are part of a free temporary display in Room 34 – Living histories: Recent acquisitions of works on paper by contemporary Arab artists, until October 22, 2017. The work is shown together with recent acquisitions of posters, prints, drawings, photographs and artists’ books.
Many of the artists come from Syria, their work produced following the uprisings that began in 2011 that have since resulted in full scale civil war.
Four of the artists in this newly acquired group are from North Africa. Algerian-born Lydia Ouhrahmane and French-Moroccan Leila Alaoui (1982-2016), focus on aspects of migration.
Through the medium of Polaroids, Ouhrahmane captures the caves where young Algerian migrants hide before making the crossing to Europe from Oran, while the brilliant photojournalist Leila Alaoui, killed in Burkina Faso, highlights the hope of young Tunisian migrants as well as the resignation clearly seen in the faces of refugees from Syria on the border with Lebanon.
Tunisians Nidhal Chamekh and Héla Ammar turn to events in their country prior to the revolution of 2011. Chamekh focuses on the Bread Riots of 1984, his subject Professor Fadhel Sassi, shot in Tunis, and Ammar on the conditions of prisoners in Tunisian jails.
Iraqi-Kurdish artist Jamal Penjwaney’s darkly comic ‘Saddam is Here’, is intended to remind the viewer that Saddam’s shadow still follows Iraqi society everywhere well after his demise.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “We are hugely grateful for Art Fund’s support of important acquisitions like these photographs. It is through collecting contemporary art like this that the British Museum’s collection will continue to reflect the history of the world for future generations.”
Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund director, said: “Many artists today are using the medium of photography to engage with unfolding events across the Middle East. Art Fund’s establishment in 2009 of a special fund to facilitate collecting in this field by both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum led to the formation of an important body of work, which this New Group of acquisitions now joins. We congratulate the British Museum curators on this imaginative and successful progression of a pioneering initiative.”