Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: Sunday 28/04/2019

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A photographic journey through the Islamic world then and now

The exhibition at London’s Asia House is divided into three parts: 30 black-and-white images hand-coloured; 350 photographs from 1851 to the 1940s; and 130 photographs from the Islamic world today.


Celebrating diversity. An old photograph from Uzbekistan on display at the exhibition in London. (Karen Dabrowska)

Celebrating diversity. An old photograph from Uzbekistan on display at the exhibition in London. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - “Departures: A Photographic Journey Through the Islamic World” creates a penetrating flash of insight into an area from Morocco in the west to China in the east and from the Balkans in the north to Sudan in the south.

The exhibition at London’s Asia House is divided into three parts: 30 black-and-white images hand-coloured and turned into works of art that were reproduced as postcards; 350 photographs from 1851 to the 1940s shown in a 30-minute video; and 130 photographs from the Islamic world today focusing on everyday life in an 18-minute video.

The historic photographs are from the collection of Tarik Alireza, a Saudi architect who collected 15,000 images, mainly postcards, over 40 years. He worked on the exhibition with British photographer Richard Wilding, who created an amazing backdrop based on a world map from 1851 from the collection of David Ramsey.

“The map was an attempt to communicate the geographical spread of the Islamic world,” Wilding said. “We wanted to create something that was accessible to adults and children and that communicated the diversity of the styles of costumes and architecture.”

“On the map, we have 80 images, including a woman from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, two Assyrian ladies from southern Turkey, Kurds from northern Iraq and a boy with a dagger from Aden,” he said.

“In terms of architecture, the mosques demonstrate local styles of contrasting architecture, so you have a Chinese mosque in Beijing and mosques in Russia, Mongolia, India and Malaysia.”

The 350 historic images are organised thematically starting with a sequence from the haj showing pilgrims departing from their homes, arriving in Mecca and Medina and returning home. This is followed by images of markets, cities and urban life, mosques, shrines, camel caravans and the Hejaz railway from Damascus to Medina.

Wilding pointed out that a lot of the information on the original postcards was inaccurate. A picture would be labelled as being from Syria when it was from Turkey. The dates were also problematic because post card publishers recycled photographs and a photograph that was taken in 1880 and published in 1915 would be dated 1915.

Wilding said he spent 500 hours over four months working on the exhibition.

“One of the challenges I faced was that when you take a small post card and blow it up marks and dust show up. I had to edit these out and that took about an hour for every image. We have photographs from regions that have been very much transformed in the past few years,” he said.

Wilding and Alireza introduced the photographs from Instagram to show the contrasts between the Islamic world today and in the past. Wilding said he looked through thousands of Instagram photographs and contacted the photographers who reflected scenes from daily life.

“These images show that although religion is an element of the people’s lives, it is by no means the only element. We have people playing sport, rock climbing, running marathons and shopping and artisans making various crafts,” he said.

“There are colourful images of chili picking in Oman, a Quranic school in Sudan, a busy street in Tehran, reed cutting in Turkey, Palestinian students in Gaza and the port of Alexandria in Egypt.”

The exhibition was called “Departures” because it takes the viewer on a journey of discovery and presents a different image of the Islamic world from the usual media images of war, sectarianism and destruction. Many of the photographs were taken by European travellers for a European audience eager for a taste of the exotic.

Wilding said that, during the past 70 years, the Muslim world has lost its diversity. “You could once tell where someone was from by the way they dressed. Now more and more people are wearing jeans and the diversity in costumes and architecture is being lost because of modernity,” he said.

Wilding and Alireza have been working together for 16 years on books, exhibitions and films all to do with the heritage of the Islamic world.

Arts Programme Manager at Asia House Juan de Lara observed in a statement that the show would encourage audiences to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes ever-present in the Islamic world.

“Now, more than ever, it is our responsibility to bring to society and our youngsters the tools to better understand the converging elements present in our cultures,” de Lara stated.

“Asia House seeks to foster engagement and understanding between global cultures and this exhibition is in line with this mission serving as a dialogue between the past and present, between the diverse cultures and traditions that make up the Islamic world and between the Islamic world and the West.”

“Departures: A Photographic Journey Through the Islamic World” runs through May 3.