Does the British Museum’s new photographic collection reinforce western stereotypes about the Middle East?

The acquisition of works by nine photographers that focus on conflict and issues such as migration have divided opinion

Syria's Al-Baath newspaper is used in Jaber Al Azmeh's Resurrection series. Courtesy Jaber Al Azmeh
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In January last year, French-Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui was among 30 people murdered in Burkina Faso by terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Alaoui was in the West ­African country taking photographs for an Amnesty International women's rights campaign. As yet another random victim of the seemingly endless fundamentalist violence spawned in the Middle East, there was a cruel irony in the nature of the death of a woman who had sought to alter western perceptions of the region.

Much of Alaoui's photo-journalism had focused on the plight of migrants. But at the time of her death, her exhibition Les Marocains, beautiful images of ordinary people going about their everyday lives, was showing at the ­Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.

With this work, she had sought to counter the "tired exoticisation" of North Africa and the Arab world by the West, a stereotyping that in the 21st century has transformed from a patronising colonial-era fantasy of mysterious "otherness" to a view that this is a region where only conflict and oppression thrive.

Leila Alaoui, Natreen, 2013. Lambda print mounted on Dibond. 60 x 90 cm Courtesy Fondation Leila Alaoui & GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana
Leila Alaoui, Natreen, 2013. Lambda print mounted on Dibond. 60 x 90 cm Courtesy Fondation Leila Alaoui & GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana

Last month, some of Alaoui's work was among that of nine photographers from the region acquired by the British Museum in London, as part of an ongoing programme, Living Histories, that "takes the museum's Middle East art collection in new directions … engaging with recent and current histories".

But none of Alaoui's photographs of normality have made it into the collection. Instead, the chosen work focuses on young Tunisian migrants and "the resignation clearly seen in the faces of refugees from Syria on the border with Lebanon". 

It is the same story with much of the other work chosen by the museum. The Polaroids of Algerian-born Lydia Ourahmane capture the bleak uncertainty of the coastal caves in which young Algerian migrants shelter before attempting the perilous crossing of the ­Mediterranean to Europe. ­Tunisian photographers Nidhal Chamekh and Héla Ammar document respectively the pre-revolutionary bread riots of 1984 and the plight of prisoners in their country's jails.

Iraqi-Kurdish artist Jamal Penjwenys "darkly comic" work, Saddam is Here, "is intended to remind the viewer that Saddam's shadow still follows Iraqi society everywhere", while Syrian artist Jaber Al Azmeh's Resurrection series "invited his sitters to turn the Syrian government ­newspaper Al-Baath upside down and make comments on it".

Jamal Penjwany's Saddam is Here series. Courtesy Jamal Penjwany
Jamal Penjwany's Saddam is Here series. Courtesy Jamal Penjwany

The photographs were bought with a £50,000 (Dh239,388) grant from the Art Fund, a British charity set up in 1903. Though best known for funding the purchase of high-profile western works of art, including Rodin's Kiss and Velázquez's Rokeby Venus, the trust has previously supported the purchase of art from the Middle East.

In 1952, it helped the ­Victoria and Albert Museum buy 15 pieces of Islamic pottery from the 12th and 13th centuries, including work from Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Turkey.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, says he is sensitive to the concern that for the British Museum to collect such overtly political photographs is to risk setting in stone for perpetuity the singular vision of the region it projects. The trust's trustees were "certainly aware that a lot of these works are highly charged politically, and were not universally going to be seen as great choices", he says.

"But I would say that the Middle East was and remains an area of major social and political upheaval and these days the contemporary art world is very strongly motivated around political and social issues. It seemed to be a groundbreaking initiative in all respects, not just museologically but politically and in terms of public understanding of the Middle Eastern situation more generally."

All the images, selected and submitted to the trust for approval by Venetia Porter, the British Museum's curator responsible for Islamic art and for developing the collection of the modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, were vetted by the Art Trust's board of trustees.

The board, chaired by a former British secretary of state for culture, is composed almost exclusively of western-facing art experts and academics, which suggests that the collective vision of the Middle East and North Africa projected by the chosen works is likely to be unavoidably western in perspective.

That, Deuchar says, is "a very interesting question", and one that conjures "a 21st-century version of Orientalism, whereby people in western Europe wanted the Middle East to be portrayed in a particular way".

There was, he conceded, also a danger that artists in the Middle East, as during the heyday of Orientalism, "begin to respond and to create a ­vision of the Middle East which panders to European notions. I remember going round Art Dubai a couple of years ago and thinking that a lot of artists were creating imagery to suit the fashion for showing conflict".

But the newly acquired works, he believes, do not fall into that trap. They are "much more intelligently made and chosen and, I think, thought-provoking and moving rather than manipulative or superficial".

The trust, he says, "made it our business to feel we were in a position to judge accurately whether these were good works of art [and] I would say that these are serious works, chosen with great intelligence by a curator who is both deeply knowledgeable of the countries involved and aware of the way they would be received by a UK audience".

Porter was not available for comment, but a spokesperson for the British Museum said that "by ­collecting contemporary art like this the museum's collection will continue to reflect the history of the world for ­future generations". Such works "can then speak in dialogue with other existing objects in the museum's collection, past and present, [from] these regions".

For 25-year-old Algerian-­born Lydia Ourahmane, who finds her work enshrined in the British Museum just three years after graduating from Goldsmiths, University of London, with a degree in fine art, artists such as her have a moral and emotional obligation to document the realities of life as they ­experience it.

Emy Kat's Philby No. 1, from the ‘Everlasting now’ series 2015. Courtesy Emy Kat
Emy Kat's Philby No. 1, from the ‘Everlasting now’ series 2015. Courtesy Emy Kat

"I cannot unsee what I have seen," she says. "Art has always thrived in such situations, and the most important work is made as a process of understanding and bearing witness to what's going on in your surroundings."

As for the British ­Museum, its job, she says, "is to document history, for it to be able to be seen in context in the future, and this type of work must exist in that kind of collection. These are not subjects that should be viewed only in a news context – it's far more important than that".

Yet she recognises the potential danger of compounding the view of the region as a place only of turmoil: "It only confirms what we know. I don't think it should only be like that, which is why in the future I am more interested in portraying a different side to Algeria. But you can't get to that point until you deal with all the other stuff."

Resurrection, a series of photographs by Syrian artist Jaber Al Azmeh, is part of Living Histories, a display of recent acquisitions of works on paper by contemporary Arab artists at the British Museum until ­October 22. Currently, the other recently acquired photographs can be viewed, on application, in the museum's Middle East Study Room