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August 13 2012

Jerusalem exhibition lifts the veil on Hasidic Jewish culture

A World Apart Next Door exhibition at city's Israel Museum proves an unexpected hit, attracting secular and religious visitors

The crowd standing in front of the video projected on to the museum wall was unusual. A young woman with loose curls tumbling over her bare shoulders and clad in tiny denim shorts craned to get a better view; just behind her stood two ultra-Orthodox Jews in customary heavy black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats.

This sight, rarely seen in Jerusalem, was an illustration of the remarkable success of an exhibition examining the life and culture of the 250-year-old Hasidic Jewish movement. In a city where ultra-Orthodox Jews have become such a visible and influential presence, their way of life is a mystery to most outsiders.

A World Apart Next Door, the aptly titled exhibition at the Israel Museum, has become an unexpected success since opening two months ago. It is attracting round 1,300 visitors each day – big numbers for a city with a population about a tenth of London's. Half the visitors are from the ultra-Orthodox community.

"It's a phenomenon – a kind of a blockbuster. It's definitely exceeded expectations," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "For the ultra-Orthodox, it's the first opportunity to see their communal culture elevated and celebrated in a museum setting. For everyone else who sees members of the community on the streets, it's an opportunity to learn about a culture of which you can't help but be aware, but about which you know little."

The exhibition displays historic and contemporary photographs and artefacts, with separate sections focusing on the lives of men, women, children and rabbis. Clothing and headwear, some bought especially for the show and some borrowed from members of the community, are accompanied by explanations of different dress codes and requirements.

Most compelling are the videos, around which crowds gather throughout the day. Some, projected on to big display spaces on the walls, show religious gatherings and festivals, dancing and singing. An extraordinary wedding scene shows an apparently tense masked bride being led around a big arena by a dancing rabbi as male guests, dressed in customary monochrome, ecstatically and rhythmically sway and stomp. The women – forbidden from dancing in the presence of men – appear subdued.

Smaller screens show interviews with Hasidic Jews: a young mother explaining the role of women in the community; a hatmaker describing his trade and displaying his skill; a boy having his first ritual haircut at the age of three. All are presented with empathy, and many show not just devotion and reverence, but joy and exuberance.

Curator Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, who spent 18 months assembling the exhibition after five years of research, said there was some co-operation from the community, but she also encountered anxiety and hesitation. "I spent a lot of time building relationships of trust," she said. Photographers and videographers were careful to observe religious and cultural mores.

She is delighted with the exhibition's reception. "I expected it to be a success, but not to this extent. I didn't dream of it. It has created dialogue between groups that otherwise would never meet."

The museum, aware that the ultra-Orthodox may be unwilling to visit the exhibition in mixed-sex groups or in the company of those outside their communities, ensured that rabbis knew that special after-hours group sessions could be arranged. "There has not been a single request," said Snyder. "It's extraordinary to see all these people side by side, and talking to one another."

He was also prepared for tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews to surface in the context of the exhibition. Many Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, are deeply resentful of the ultra-Orthodox communities over their exemption from compulsory military service. They also complain of an unfair economic and social burden, given that many ultra-Orthodox men spend their lives in full-time subsidised religious study while fathering very large families.

"These issues have not come up. The abrasion that exists on the street is not present at the museum," said Snyder.

The exhibition, which runs until 1 December, contributed to a record July for the museum, with 84,000 visitors. It is expected to travel abroad next year, following requests from museums in Europe and North America.


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August 08 2012

Clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo – in pictures

Award-winning photographer Goran Tomasevic has been covering clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where fighting between rival factions appears to have reached a stalemate



August 01 2012

Former queen of Iran on assembling Tehran's art collection

The rarely shown collection includes works by giants such as Pollock, Warhol and Bacon

Situated in the heart of the Iranian capital, Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art is home to the world's most valuable collection of western modern art outside Europe and the United States. The rarely shown collection, which includes works by giants such as Pollock, Warhol and Bacon, was bought under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran who fled the country along with the late Shah during the turbulent events of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Guardian has spoken to the former empress about the museum and its remarkable collection on the occasion of an exhibition showing some of the art pieces for the first time.

Q. Where did the idea for the collection come from?

I have always been fascinated with the arts. When I was in Iran in that position I was constantly concerned with promoting our Iranian traditional art but, at the same time, with introducing contemporary and modern art. I was particularly interested in modern paintings and sculptures. A number of private galleries were open at the time and the ministry of culture had a biennial of art and I was always involved in the inaugurations and the ceremonies.

I was interested in buying contemporary works and encouraged public offices to buy them at all times. Our curators and collectors at that time were mostly interested in the traditional art and not so much in the modern art. This is why I encouraged our private and public figures to buy modern works.

There was an exhibition which I participated in and there Mrs Iran Darroudi [an Iranian artist] had put some of her works on display. It was an exhibition held in a place between Pahlavi Street and Shahreza Street, the place where City Theatre was built, there was an old building in a place called Municipal Gardens. I remember Mrs Darroudi telling me she wished we had a place where we could put our works on show permanently, that was how the idea for Tehran's museum of contemporary art came up. I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works, this is how it all started, as far as I remember. I spoke to Mr Kamran Diba [a prominent architect and a cousin of Farah Pahlavi] to design the museum.

It was the early 1970s, our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to His Majesty [the Shah] and [the then prime minister] Mr Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside. They agreed. The museum was supposed to be built in Farah park which is now called Laleh park. I wanted it to be built in a park so that people could have better and easier access to the museum. I remember they intended to build houses in Farah park and His Majesty was away from Iran, I contacted him and wrote to him asking them to stop the construction which they did. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Carpets were built there. I wanted the museum's building to be both inspired by our ancient architecture and have modern elements and Mr Diba did it so well, the museum's rooms were designed in a way that the light came in through windows similar to the wind-catchers of Yazd's deserts.

Q. Who actually selected the art pieces?

Both Iranian and foreign works were bought under the supervision of my office. We provided the budget from NIOC [National Iranian Oil Company] and the budget planning office. Of the people involved, two were Americans, Donna Stein and David Galloway, and Mr Diba, who was the director of the museum, and Mr Karimpasha Bahadori, who was the chief of staff of the cabinet. Most of the paintings were bought under the direct supervision of my office with help from Mr Bahadori. He had met the president of Christie's and Sotheby's and the [Ernst] Beyeler art gallery in Switzerland. When Mr Bahadori left the office, Mr Diba became more involved with selecting the works.

Q. How do you feel now to see the collection gathering dust in the basement of the museum?

I hope these works are not buried in the museum's basement aimlessly. I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them but fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement and Mehdi Kowsar, the head of Tehran University architecture faculty, made a list of all the works and helped to protect them in that basement. He later became the director of the museum when Mr Diba left.

I hope the collection is protected well there. I have seen some of them in films and I'm happy that some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the works and made a catalogue listing the works, I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there. I hope, too, that they make a catalogue of the Iranian art collection that was bought during my time so that people can realise what we bought from the Iranian art at the same time. It is a national asset and I hope they preserve it well. It's the most valuable collection of western modern art outside Europe and the US.

It was 1977 when it was inaugurated and we put them on display, His Majesty was there, also some foreign reporters and I remember that some of the reporters were thinking Iranians don't deserve to have these paintings, it was insulting, but they were not only foreign works, we had Iranian art, films, photography too. I am happy they are still there.

Q. What is your reaction to see some of the works censured?

As long as they don't destroy them and they keep them safe, I'm happy. If they don't want to show them, let them not show them, but I'm happy as far as they are safe. Is everything that is happening in Iran now Islamic? Is it only Degas's painting [Ballet Dancers] that is un-Islamic? I heard that they sent some Francis Bacon works to London and showed them there. Recently some Max Ernst paintings were shown in the Pompidou Centre in Paris including the one belonging to Tehran's museum as part of the surrealist exhibition. The Ernst painting that we have in Iran is his most beautiful painting, even better than those now on show in Germany.

Q. And your reaction to the work that was swapped?

To be honest, I don't dare to speak about those paintings freely, because I know some people have their eyes on these works or want to make Iran exchange them and I want the collection to stay in Iran. Jackson Pollock's painting, which has an unbelievable price, was sent to Japan recently but confiscated on its return to Tehran in customs. When the director of the museum inquired, he was told the painting had been taken as ransom for the money that the ministry of culture owed to the customs. I instantly issued a statement in protest.

There was a painting that they exchanged some years ago, it was a painting by Willem de Kooning, which was deemed un-Islamic. They exchanged it for the Shahnameh owned by the American art collector Houghton. It's the Shahnameh that originally belonged to Shah Tahmasb [of the Safavid dynasty] and it's the most beautiful ever. In 1970, we wanted to buy it but it cost some $20m which we couldn't pay at the time. The owner printed them and gave some of its miniatures to the Metropolitan museum in New York and put some on sale. What was left apparently cost only $6m and the Islamic republic exchanged de Kooning's painting for that. If they were really interested in the Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep de Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for some $110m few years ago. The de Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one.

I follow the works of Iranian artists even now, sometimes in Paris or in New York and I am happy Iranian artists are still great. Whether they are men or women, they have always been great. Despite all the pressure and censorship inside the country, they haven't been able to stop the creativity of our artists. Some have to work underground, like in cinema, and sometimes their work has political messages, but the number of our artists now has definitely grown in comparison to the past. In reality, I admire all the new groups that exist, because in the beginning they had even banned the traditional Iranian music and some artists were practicing underground. I admire the film directors including those who have recently won international recognition, but I particularly regret that Iranian musicians are not allowed to show their instruments on national TV and the fact that lady singers cannot sign individually.

The picture of today's Iran in the world is terrible, comparing the past and now. I'm happy that few years ago at the time of Tehran's post-election unrest in 2009, the world for the first time in many years saw the true face of Iranians and both people inside the country and foreigners once again reminded themselves of Iran's glorious civilisation, history and art. I hope the situation changes and they can have the regime they deserve.

Q. Anything to you want to add about the museum's collection?

In one of the films shown in the US from that basement, I saw that the painting Andy Warhol drew of me was cut by knives and a sculpture of Bahman Moases that they didn't like was broken. I had the chance to meet some of these artists in person, like Marc Chagall, whom I met in southern France, Dali in Paris, Henry Moore in the suburbs of London, Paul Jenkins in the US and the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, who we had commissioned to make three bronze columns for the museum's entrance, a project that was disrupted by the revolution. When I was in the US few years ago on a flight to Connecticut, I realised they had been bought by the Pepsi company.


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Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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June 28 2012

Egyptian cartoonist George Bahgoury: 'My vision is contaminated in Egypt' - video

Regarded as the father of Egyptian caricature, George Bahgoury discusses his life and work, and the problems of being an artist in post-revolutionary Egypt





June 27 2012

Arab Spring photographs added to British Museum and V&A collection

Art Fund says it is giving £150,000 to establish joint collection that has been in development over the last three years

Photographs created in reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 will form an important part of a major collection of Middle Eastern photography being established jointly by the British Museum and the V&A.

The Art Fund said it was giving £150,000 to establish a collection that has been in development by the two institutions over the last three years.

The fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it would help remedy an under-representation. "It is a response to the surge in interest in visual arts in that part of the world, a surge that has not been matched by its representation in museums generally."

Both institutions have hugely important photographic collections for slightly different reasons. Roughly speaking the British Museum collects to tell the stories of societies while the V&A explores the possibilities of particular mediums.

"Putting the two together allows so many different narratives and no narrative, I think, is more important at the moment than that of the contemporary Middle East," said the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor. "That is a world that we need to understand and photography is a particularly powerful way of allowing us to do so."

More than 80 works by 22 artists form the collection to date including more recent photographs taken as a response to the Arab Spring. Most of the works will be on show at an exhibition called Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the V&A that will run from 13 November until 7 April 2013.

That show's curator, Marta Weiss, said contemporary Middle East photography was some of the "most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world."

The artists include Youssef Nabil who took portraits of the last surviving Yemeni seamen who settled in South Shields to the UK's oldest Muslim and Arab community; and the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian who took portraits of women dressed in traditional late 19th century clothing but with modern anomalies added – such as sun glasses or a Pepsi can.

The donation came as the Art Fund gave an annual update on its activities and revealed a 20% rise in membership in 2011/12. That increase was down to the launch in April 2011 of its National Art Pass which gives free or discounted entry to museums and galleries across the UK.

The Fund gave a total of £6m to arts organisations to help them purchase works of art including its biggest ever grant of £2m which it gave to the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland for Titian's Diana and Callisto.


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New Middle Eastern photography comes to UK

An exhibition at the V&A in London this November offers a long-overdue opportunity to admire the sophistication of contemporary Middle Eastern photographic artists

In pictures: Light from the Middle East

The announcement that the V&A and the British Museum in London have acquired a major collection of Middle Eastern photography just ahead of the V&A's big November show of contemporary work, Light from the Middle East, is further evidence of how vibrant photography is in the region, and how relatively late we have been in catching up to that fact. As Marta Weiss, curator of the exhibition, notes: "contemporary photographic practice from and about the Middle East has been some of the most exciting, innovative and varied anywhere in the world".

That, in part, is to do with the ways photographers and artists have responded, both formally and in terms of subject matter, to the political upheavals in the region, including the Arab spring. The exhibition, which spans the past 20 years and includes the work of 30 artists from 13 different countries, is divided into three themes: Recording, Reframing and Resisting.

Alongside established photojournalists such as the Iranian-born Abbas, the V&A will be showing the work of Youssef Nabil, who once worked for David LaChapelle and was championed by Tracey Emin when she discovered his hand-coloured photographic prints made in homage to old Egyptian film stills.

More provocative is the work of Shadi Ghadirian, which was snapped up by the Saatchi Gallery in London and questions the traditional role of women in her native Iran. In her staged series, Like Everyday, Ghadirian mischievously places kitchen utensils over the faces of veiled women, playing with both language – "doormat", "hatchet-face" – and representation. Newsha Takavolian, a female photojournalist from Tehran, also addresses women's roles in Iranian society in her potent series of portraits, Mothers of Martyrs.

The V&A will also be showing the work of the Atlas Group, a fictional collective formed by Walid Raad, perhaps the best known contemporary artist from the Middle East. Lebanese-born Raad, who lives in New York, won the Deutsche Börse prize in 2007 and the prestigious Hasselblad prize last year. His practice uses still photography, video and text to address the history and politics of Lebanon in an often oblique way.

Politics, society, identity and belonging are recurring themes here, as well as the psychic fallout of war and revolution. But it is the ambitious and challenging ways artists and photographers have responded to those subjects that have made contemporary Middle Eastern photography so exciting, complex and multi-layered. It should be quite a show.


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Light from the Middle East: new photography – in pictures

A major new collection of contemporary Middle Eastern photography has been announced by the V&A. Here is an advanced look at some of the collection's best works





June 12 2012

The Gaddafi archives – in pictures

The Gaddafi Archives: Libya Before the Arab Spring is part of the London festival of photography



Muammar Gaddafi's photo archive gives an insight into the 'Jamahiriya'

Libyan dictator always had an eye for the camera, whether it was posing with world leaders or harking back to his Bedouin roots

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years before he was overthrown last summer and killed by rebels in October. So it will take some time before his countrymen are able to escape his giant shadow. Even as a young man – he was 27 in 1969 when he and his fellow officers overthrew the western-backed King Idris – Gaddafi had an eye for the camera and for posterity.

Archives seized after the revolution contain a rich photographic record of his poses, achievements and friends, though his hugs of welcome for fellow Arab leaders from Yasser Arafat to Egypt's President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, his hero and inspiration, often masked stormy private relationships.

Gaddafi's penchant for elaborate military uniforms and powerful allies is combined in a shot of him standing hand-in-hand with the ageing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, at the start of a decade which saw Libyan backing for the IRA and other terrorists, retaliatory US air attacks on Libya as well as the notorious Lockerbie bombing. Years of sanctions followed until Gaddafi finally came in from the cold and shed his pariah status for a brief honeymoon before the Arab spring erupted.

Images found by Human Rights Watch in state intelligence buildings and Gaddafi family residences make up a unique archive of the years when the Jamahiriya or "state of the masses" was run according to the precepts of the "Brother Leader's'' Green Book, and was effectively closed to the west.

Gaddafi often harked back to his Bedouin roots – receiving visitors in a tent pitched inside his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli before the Nato-backed revolution ended his control of the capital.

In one undated picture he lies sprawled happily and barefoot on the sand, foreshadowing the unmarked desert grave he was buried in last October after being killed by rebel fighters on the outskirts of his home town Sirte.His rotting corpse was left on display in a meat store for three days in a grotesque parody of a conventional lying-in-state for a mourned national leader.

Hatred and vengeance were the products of decades of the repression that was an important part of Gaddafi's Libya. One grim shot in this exhibition shows bodies dangling from makeshift gallows in a Benghazi sports stadium – the result of one of his periodic "revolutionary" show trials of the dissidents he hunted down without mercy at home and abroad.

The Gaddafi Archives: Libya Before the Arab Spring London Festival of Photography


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Iran's public executions in the spotlight

Iran, which executes more people than any other country in the world apart from China, is notorious for its public hangings

In Iran the death sentence is usually handed down for crimes such as murder, rape, homosexuality and until recently drug-related offences. The hangings usually take place in the early hours of the morning as the sun rises, often at the crime scene or in a city centre.

The families of both the victims and convicts gather as the authorities prepare to hang the condemned criminals from cranes.

Under Iran's sharia law, the victim's family has the right to spare the convict from execution for certain crimes such as when someone is convicted of killing another person in a car accident. This means many executions see the convict's relatives incessantly pleading for a pardon.

A huge crowd, which might include children, usually surrounds the scene, such as in this video.

When Iranian authorities last year lifted a ban on photographing public executions, an Iranian photo-journalist, Ebrahim Noroozi, began to freely document them. For those pictures, he won a prize in the contemporary issues category of the 2012 edition World Press Photo in April this year.

The New York Times has this week published a gallery of Noroozi's pictures along with a brief interview with him which you can read here.

"I don't go to executions for fun. As a journalist I don't want to pass judgment on whether they are good or bad, but the act itself disgusts me," he told the Times.

According to Amnesty, at least 676 judicial executions are known to have been carried out in 2011 globally. More than half of those took place in Iran, which executed at least 360 people. But reports about the regime's campaign of secret and mass hangings of prisoners have made it impossible for Amnesty to publish the true figures in Iran, like in China.


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Reposted byiranelection iranelection

April 27 2012

These magazine covers are graphic examples that sex can sell feminism | Jonathan Jones

Does Newsweek and Foreign Policy's double act of covers objectify women or simply draw attention to good journalism?

Can you judge a magazine by its cover? Or to put it another way, should you judge a society by the images it circulates, or by the laws it enacts and the customs it lives by?

These two covers of current American magazines might mistakenly be seen as an indictment of the hypocrisy and shallowness of western secular society. While Foreign Policy promotes a feature on women in the Middle East with a photograph of a model with her naked body painted to look as if she's covered up according to Islamic principles, the cover of Newsweek uses another naked model, this time wearing a black silk blindfold, to sell an article on what it claims is a vogue for submission fantasies among America's women. The pictures make an entertaining double act as they seem to play off one another in so many ways – one of which is the contrast between recreational submission and actual submission.

Katie Roiphe's piece in Newsweek, to which which the blindfolded nude draws our eyes, is inspired by the bestselling e-novel Fifty Shades of Grey to argue that American women, while enjoying more economic and social power than ever before, are currently fascinated by a "watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism". I would say the cover of Newsweek is actually a subtle illustration of this thesis. It pastiches that contrived "skinny-vanilla-latte" image of sadomasochism. It is closer to a Valentine's card than it is to the X Portfolio. The relationship between image and word in the case of Foreign Policy is a lot more challenging.

Mona Eltahawy's article, which the image of a nude cover-up promotes, argues that the battleground of modern feminism should be the middle east and that women are the true victims of oppression in the region, both before and after the Arab spring. She accuses Arab societies of institutional misogyny. Her article is full of horrifying examples. In Saudi Arabia, she points out, women are perpetual minors who are forbidden to drive and will acquire only very limited voting rights, finally, in 2015. When a school in Mecca caught fire in 2002 "morality police" caused the deaths of 15 girls by forbidding them to escape because they were not wearing headscarves or cloaks. Meanwhile 55% of women in Yemen are illiterate.

Clearly, Eltahawy has said goodbye to a broad swath of relativist, liberal opinion in this article, by rejecting the intellectual respectability of the idea that Islamic practices on gender should be respected and understood as different. The cover of Foreign Policy might be seen as a final parting shot, except of course the writer probably had no control over how her work was illustrated. Does the picture offer ammunition to critics of her piece who can point to its "orientalism" and its graphic evidence of the forces that oppress women in the free western world she apparently so admires? After all, when Naomi Wolf said she felt free wearing the hijab, it was presumably images such as these she felt liberated from.

I would argue the contrary. Some might say that western society's endless representation of women as sexual commodities – as typified by these pictures – is a pretty good argument for religious "modesty". But in reality they reveal a genuinely free society in which women speak powerfully. Both draw attention to incisive pieces of journalism about women, by women. Sex sells, but it can sell feminism, too.

Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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April 17 2012

Guggenheim delay raises big question: is Abu Dhabi ready for modern art?

Emirate may scale back grandiose plan for three museums amid concerns that art could be subject to censorship

It was billed as an unprecedented cluster of cultural glory that would transform Abu Dhabi into the Paris of the Middle East: three centrepiece museums, including the world's largest Guggenheim and a branch of the Louvre, designed by "starchitects" to rise up among a complex of five-star beach resorts and luxury villas on Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi.

But six years after the project was unveiled, while several five-star resorts have opened, the only visible signs of the complex are an illuminated model in an exhibition centre near a windswept desert construction site.

Repeated delays and financial concerns have diminished the impact of the scheme, say project insiders and art experts, and some now believe the emirate has no option but to scale back its grandiose plans, possibly even scrapping the Guggenheim museum.

Those concerns have been compounded by reports of the mistreatment of migrant workers labouring on the £17bn Saadiyat island complex and worries about whether the art ultimately put on display will be subjected to censorship by the conservatives who hold sway in this part of the world.

Verena Formanek, senior project manager for the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, admitted it was still a distant prospect. "The light's on the horizon when the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens. I think that's the first time I will really feel more secure because then I will see a museum is really open here and this will change a lot."

But she added: "Really, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is far away."

Later this month the contract to build the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi – due to open in 2015, three years later than initially planned – will finally be put to tender. The process was cancelled last year because of financial concerns following the global economic downturn, and plans for the island's cultural district went into contractual limbo. The tenders to construct the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum and the Frank Gehry-rendered Guggenheim will not be issued until early and late 2013 respectively, said Stuart Magee, executive director of delivery for the emirate's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). The former will now open in 2016 and the latter in 2017, three to four years later than originally scheduled, he said. "Staggering the opening of the museums will allow us to get more bang for our buck in terms of promotion. It also gives people more reason to come back," said Magee.

In the six years since the Guggenheim project was unveiled, the United Arab Emirates' art scene has grown enormously, with Dubai now host to a world art fair and a thriving private gallery scene, while Sharjah has a respected contemporary biennial. Dubai-based gallerist Ramin Salsali, twice honoured as a patron of the arts by the UAE vice president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, called on the country's rulers to replace the Guggenheim with a smaller, homegrown modern art museum. Unlike the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, he said, the project would not stimulate the local economy and cultural development.

"The Guggenheim effect is sexy when you are not on the radar. When you are Bilbao. But Abu Dhabi today – I'm sorry to say, but the Guggenheim should pay Abu Dhabi to be there, not vice versa. Does Abu Dhabi need the Guggenheim still? I don't believe so."

The Iranian collector, one of the first to propose inviting the Guggenheim to the UAE, added: "The luck is that the delay may provoke a reconsideration of why we should have a Guggenheim of that scale, with that amount of money. Let us downsize it."

Hossein Amirsadeghi, who chaired the Middle East art and patronage summit at the British Museum in January, questioned the viability of the Guggenheim, given that Qatar was already hosting contemporary art shows in the Al Riwaq gallery in Doha, with a Damien Hirst exhibition due to be held next year. He said Abu Dhabi was quietly seeking a way to scale back the project: "The Guggenheim is a giant Meccano set that no one knows how to put together."

Formanek said that the 30,000-square-metre museum would go ahead. "Most of the people visiting us today don't know the difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so we needed to work with the Guggenheim brand. No one in the world would have looked at Abu Dhabi without that name."

But she admitted that the process of compiling its permanent collection was problematic because "contemporary art is not always easy. [It's] completely different in the process of acquiring the work because we represent the government. This is government money. We want to accelerate slowly, not beginning with the contemporary in the sense that we shock people and no one ever came back here."

She would not comment on what art the museum was buying but added that it could not match the estimated £1bn the Qatari royal family has spent on modern and contemporary art in the past seven years because it is a government institution. "It wouldn't be possible because it won't be accepted."

The museum also had to take care not to distort the art market. "We don't want to create inflation. Because we know once the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi acquires a work at that price then it's carved in stone."

She said there was a risk that the western Guggenheim brand and perceptions of contemporary art could provoke an "aggressive response" from conservative Emiratis, so the delay in construction created time to educate the local audience. Several talks and exhibitions on modern, Islamic, classical and ancient art have been held in the Manarat Al Saadiyat visitors' centre to promote the new museums and familiarise people with visual art, she added.

Rita Aoun Abdo, Saadiyat's cultural director, said the museums had to grow within the local culture "otherwise they are not viable. They're based on real dialogue not on shock or controversy. How would you define censorship? Is it based on local or international values? Censorship has always existed and it's just the respect of what are the values of the place."

William Wells, director of the Townhouse gallery, Cairo, said while financial problems had delayed the museums, the Arab uprisings of last year were making the Emirati authorities nervous about taking the project forward.

He noted that the Guggenheim did not have a signed commitment from Abu Dhabi that there would be no censorship, although the project managers said there was an understanding.

This became problematic after the Arab spring, he said. "No one anticipated that this would happen. I think everyone was thinking about religious issues, no one thinking of this powerful political aspect."

Asked whether there would be censorship, the New York Guggenheim said the Abu Dhabi museum would be international but also reflect and emphasise the specific cultural identity of the emirates and the wider Arab world.

Wells said: "The Guggenheim seems to have all the right reasons to do the project. But this lack of transparency on the side of the museums is starting to mirror the lack of transparency in the rulers."

Similar concerns have been raised by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which last month published a second report on abuses of Asian migrant workers at the Saadiyat island complex. While the group found conditions had improved since its first report last year, which prompted an artists' boycott of the museums, it said gaps in the protection of workers remained. It called on the Guggenheim and the Louvre to obtain and disclose enforceable guarantees from the Abu Dhabi authorities to uphold workers' rights.

The TDIC said HRW's information was out of date and it had put in place independent monitoring of workers' conditions.


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April 16 2012

The rise of the Gulf art scene

Big money has turned the Gulf into a showcase for contemporary art. But will censorship stop the scene in its tracks? David Batty reports from Doha

In the foyer of al-Riwaq gallery Doha's Museum of Islamic Art, a young Qatari girl hugs a huge furry sculpture by Takashi Murakami. The gallery is hosting a retrospective of the Japanese artist's work, and the scene could be a snapshot of globalised culture: a huge inflatable self-portrait of Murakami in a Buddha pose looms in the background as the girl's parents, her mother wearing a face-covering niqab, sip lattes and take photographs.

This is a show on an epic scale. Along three walls of the main gallery runs a 100m-long painting in acrylic, gold and platinum. Huge inflatables of Murakami's signature cartoon characters, Kaikai and Kiki, hover over a circus big top; inside, a cinema screens the pair's animated adventures battling flatulent space monsters and an alien armada.

The ambition of Qatar's latest contemporary art show, aptly entitled Ego, is matched only by the country's spending power. Last year it was ranked the world's biggest buyer of contemporary art by the Art Newspaper. Over the past seven years, the Qatari royal family has spent an estimated £1bn on western art. Recent acquisitions are believed to include Mark Rothko's White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), bought for £45.9m in 2007, Damien Hirst's pill cabinet Lullaby Spring, bought for £9.7m in the same year, and the last privately held version of Paul Cézanne's The Card Players, bought in 2011 for £157m, a record price.

Purchases such as these have helped secure the oil-rich state's rise as a major player in the art world. Larry Gagosian, widely regarded as the world's most powerful art dealer (and rumoured to have bid £139m for The Card Players), was among the 200 dealers, collectors and curators who attended the opening of the Murakami show in February. The Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) sponsors Damien Hirst's Tate Modern show, due to travel to Doha next year, while the Qatar Diar real estate company is sponsoring the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Renzo Piano's Shard in London is 80% owned by Qatar's central bank, with its royal family expected to use two floors. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry has supported cultural events worldwide, including in Syria, Kazakhstan, Turkey, India and China.

This huge investment testifies to an ambition to transform the country into a cultural hub rivalling Paris and New York. At the forefront is Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, the 28-year-old daughter of the emir and head of the QMA, who has overseen the development of several museums to showcase Qatar's collections of Middle Eastern, Islamic and international art. Last June, nine months after her father pondered acquiring Christie's auction house, she hired its chairman Edward Dolman as director of her office. Al-Thani was named the most influential person in the art world by Art+Auction magazine last year, which noted she "has the resources of an entire country at her disposal. They have hired Ed Dolman to be their personal shopper. And the budget has no limit." In her forward to the catalogue for Hirst's current show, the sheikha, who studied political science and literature at Duke University in North Carolina, writes that her organisation has been "laying the ground for Qatar to become a leader in making, showing and debating the visual arts. (...) Art – even controversial art – can unlock communication between diverse nations."

Critics of the nascent scene in Qatar and its neighbour the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which now hosts two major international art events, Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial, and plans to open both a Louvre and a Guggenheim museum by the end of 2017, believe the focus on contemporary art comes at the expense of a grassroots scene. Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, thinks there is a real danger posed by the "homogenising force" of globalisation. "The danger is things start to look the same. Local voices disappear if [culture is] just an import. But if there's a hybridisation it could be fascinating." Hassan Sharif, who exhibited at the Venice Bienale last year, as an example of such hybridisation. Considered the father of the UAE's contemporary art scene, his drawings are inspired by Arab calligraphy; while his mixed media sculptures (sliced up rubber mats, twisted cutlery) marry ideas of the readymade with UAE's disposable consumer culture.

Sharif, 61, studied at the Byam Shaw school of art in London in the early 1980s. Speaking at his studio in Dubai's suburbs, he says, "I had difficulty finding an audience for my work. But I knew I should not blame society. Our art history is very short. The first public art exhibition was by a group of school students who decided to show their drawings and paintings in the central library in October 1972, less than a year after the UAE was formed."

Obrist believes Qatar and the UAE are undergoing a cultural evolution akin to that of postwar Los Angeles. He believes Qatar has been smart in developing museums, including the Islamic art museum, the Al-Riwaq contemporary gallery and a National Gallery, due to open in 2014, that have established connections between a local heritage and international contemporary visual culture. "In Doha, a visionary museum experience has been built up in the last three years. In Los Angeles it took 20."

Still, walking around al-Riwaq, you are struck by the lack of visitors. There were five people at the exhibition when I visited on a Thursday, mainly foreign tourists. In contrast, the Islamic museum, with its huge collection of historical manuscripts, textiles and ceramics, is bustling with locals. Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, is also empty when I visit. The picture is similar in the UAE. At the Sharjah Art Foundation's March Meeting, a regional gathering of artists and academics, architect and government official Khaled Bin Saqr al-Qasimi says: "Wherever you go, the art audience that is local is small or non-existent. Most of the local people at exhibitions are friends of the artists."

Jean-Paul Engelen, the Dutch director of public art at the QMA, says education is key to encouraging local interest. The former contemporary art specialist at Christie's also thinks that, given the country's conservative politics and Islamic customs, they will try to avoid exhibitions that might shock. "I think this [Murakami] show is easy entry level because they all think it's a family show and a visual spectacle," he says, noting that the local audience has had very little exposure to contemporary art. "They probably see things in there that you or I wouldn't." (This presumably does not include Murakami's bejewelled condom-wrapper in the mouth of his psychedelic cartoon-head sculpture The Simple Things.) "It's not about making the most thought-provoking academic theory," he continues, "it's about starting a conversation and widening horizons. We are introducing a new language, we don't have to start with the swear words. In Europe, we didn't go from Michelangelo to Damien Hirst in a decade."

Indeed, the Hirst show currently at Tate Modern will not be exactly replicated in Doha, with pieces such as his installation A Thousand Years, featuring a maggot-infested cow's head, likely to be omitted. A QMA spokesman tells me, "We are planning to launch an extensive education programme to introduce Hirst and his work to Qatar's community. Curatorial decisions will obviously take into consideration the cultural sensitivity of our community towards some works that may appear offensive or repulsive."

Across the border in the UAE, such debates recently overshadowed Art Dubai. Local authorities ordered at least four pieces removed from display in advance of a visit by the ruling family, including a painting based on the image of Egyptian soldiers beating a woman in Cairo's Tahrir Square, her abaya robe ripped off to reveal her blue bra. At the press launch, the event's director, Antonia Carver, says it is not political.This sentiment is echoed by Frederic Sicre, partner at equity fund manager Abraaj Capital, which sponsors the event's main art prize, who suggests the Arab Spring "is old news". But when we speak later, Carver denies there is an aversion to political work, noting that last year's event included a performance by a group of artists who were reacting to events in Tahrir. A year after the uprisings across the Arab world, regional artists "don't feel the need to pander to a desire to make political work for the west", she says later on. She points to one of the five winners of this year's Abraaj Capital prize, Raed Yassin, whose work China depicts scenes from the Lebanese civil war on porcelain vases as an example of "a more nuanced vision".

William Wells, director of the Cairo-based Townhouse gallery, disagrees, saying the level of censorship was unprecedented. He blamed the Arab uprisings and a blasphemy scandal that hit last year's Sharjah Biennial for the authorities' "incredible nervousness". (In 2011 Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed, the ruler of Sharjah, the UAE's most conservative emirate, sacked the biennial's artistic director, Jack Persekian, after artist Mustapha Benfodil's installation of mannequins in T-shirts with anti-Islamic phrases was displayed in a public courtyard near a mosque.)

Judith Greer, the Sharjah Foundation's American associate director of international programmes, says: "There's no sense that we only produce work that the Emirati audience is happy with but you have to think how you push the boundaries. People will question if they want their children to wander around the biennial."

Despite the debacle, Wells praises Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, the 32-year-old daughter of the emirate's ruler, for transforming the art foundation after studying at the Slade and the Royal College of Art in London. "If you had seen the biennial in the 90s it was so sad. Everyone was over 75. But Hoor realised that discussions, presentations, raising questions was the way to energise it."

Hoor al-Qasimi, president of the art foundation, says: "The exposure to the vigorous scene in London had a significant impact. The fact that it is all free, and that one can go to countless galleries and museums in an afternoon, was, and is, important to me.

"I've tried to create a platform that supports artists in the production of their work, while helping to facilitate their interactions with Sharjah and its audiences here."

She denies there has been local resistance to the biennial, but adds: "I would say that there have been times when some people have been 'disinterested' in some of the more difficult or challenging work."

The rulers of Qatar and the UAE want to stimulate a contemporary art scene on a par with London or New York, with the profiles of Doha's museums, Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial rising to rival Tate Modern or the Frieze art fair. But this burgeoning art scene is still driven more by money and the will of the ruling elite than the cultural affinities of their people.


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April 13 2012

March 23 2012

Syria's refugees remind us of the price of revolution | Jonathan Jones

A lamplit portrait of a refugee family underlines the suffering that recurs when real lives are invaded by big history

Here is the truth about revolution, war, dictatorship and resistance. It is a simple truth and it is crushing: people suffer. In this powerful picture by Greek photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis a refugee family in Janoudia in north-western Syria wait for rebels to help them across the border into Turkey. In the bold rhetoric of our time, this might be described as a picture of defeat, an indictment of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on opposition to his rule, a call to arms for western democracies that are so much less eager to help in Syria now than they were in Libya a year ago. Perhaps it is all those things, and anything else politics wants it to be. But first, it is a human document.

Five children sit in a pool of light amid the dark, their faces patient and resilient, their confusion and fear obvious. Each has a different expression but none are smiling. One child gazes downward while the youngest-looking boy stares at the camera. The adults in the picture, knowing more, look back at the photographer as they gather close to the children. Everyone's eyes seem to be searching, puzzling. The glow that warms their faces reveals a moment of contemplation before the next arduous stage of a journey.

Painters have known for centuries how to use nocturnal light to intensify our recognition of vulnerability. In his painting The Nativity at Night, which dates from about 1490, Geertgen tot Sint Jans shows the Madonna and child by candlelight against the dark. In this photograph, the shiny wall of the tent or canopy behind them creates a starless black night. Against this eeriness, Moutafis is able to give this family a profound dignity as the human instinct for light in the shadowed hours heightens their meditative companionship.

It seems a timeless moment. After all the hopes, anger, and bloodshed, here we are again. Refugees wait to cross a border. Lives are turned upside down. When the Arab spring began last year it was hailed around the world as if it were a new fashion. It trended. The Occupy movement was equated with it as if there were no difference between protesting in democracies and rebelling against dictatorships. The demand for democracy that has swept the Arab world is profound, but how could anyone have expected this historic convulsion to be bloodless?

This family bear witness that history is rarely gentle. Velvet revolutions are rare. If this powerful photograph looks as if it could have been taken decades ago, or painted by an Old Master, that is because the brutal violence of Syria's regime has unleashed realities of suffering that recur whenever the humble routines of real life are invaded by big history. Look at this picture and thank the stars you live in a boring place.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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March 01 2012

Brave witness: Tom Hurndall

Peace activist Tom Hurndall died at 22 after being shot by an Israeli sniper. His images and articles, that grew in intensity as his journey became more difficult, are published in a new book

Tom Hurndall was a peace activist and an aspiring photojournalist. His photographs, alongside his journals, bear witness to the often terrible, sometimes uplifting, events he saw and experienced while living among families in Iraq, in a refugee camp in Jordan, and in the Gaza Strip. It was there on 11 April 2003 that he was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier while attempting to rescue a child who had been pinned down by gunfire. He died nine months later in hospital in London. He was 22.

It is difficult, then, to look dispassionately at the photographs in The Only House Left Standing: The Middle East Journals of Tom Hurndall, which is published by Trolley Books this week. They are a mixture of reportage and citizen journalism of the most intense kind; a visual record of struggle and conflict left by someone who comes across as extraordinarily committed and fearless. As his writings show, though, Hurndall grappled with his fear every day. He travelled to Baghdad in 2003, one of a group of "human shields" who arrived just before the invasion by American and British troops, determined to protest the war in the most direct and dangerous way. In a series of articles emailed to Manchester Metropolitan University's student magazine, Pulp, he wrote honestly and without self-pity about his constant doubts and creeping fears. One sentence stands out: "When a man must lie to himself to do what he knows he should, that is when you know he is terrified."

It is hard to equate these words, this kind of self-knowledge, with the handsome, short-haired, unshaven young man who smiles out from the first photograph in the book, cigarette in hand. He looks like a student about to begin a gap year, having just landed in some faraway country where adventure awaits. Like the emails and articles that punctuate the book, the photographs grow in intensity as his journey becomes ever more difficult, ever more dangerous.

He took photographs inside a power station in Baghdad, on the streets of Amman, and in the Al-Rweished refugee camp just five kilometres from the Iraq border. He had an eye for light and shadow, for the snatched portrait, and for capturing a mood, whether joyful or sombre. By April 2003, he had arrived in Israel and, as the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes in his foreword, was heading "inexorably towards Gaza where he was confronted by the massive tragedy of the Palestinians".

In Jerusalem, on 3 April, he wrote of the death of Rachel Corrie, who had been crushed to death by an Israeli defence force bulldozer while acting as a human shield near the Rafah refugee camp. "I wonder how few or many people heard it on the news and just counted it as another death, just another number … "

In the final section of the book, Rafah, Gaza, 06-11 April 2003, there is a series of Hurndall's photographs from the frontline of the protests against the Israeli tanks and D-9 bulldozers demolishing Palestinian houses. They are both dramatic and oddly intimate, a view from the ground of dirt and destruction, chaos and violence as well as the strange sense of calm determination that comes from the civilians in bright orange jackets who line up before these massive and intimidating machines.

In his journal, Hurndall describes that day's events: "It was strange. As we approached, and the guns were firing, it sent shivers down my spine, but nothing more than that." The entry ends: "Any one of us could be watched through a sniper's sights at this moment. The certainty is that they are watching, and it is on the decision of any one Israeli soldier or settler that my life depends …"

The last picture that Hurndall took was a black-and-white shot of a street in Rafah at 1.30pm on 11 April 2003: a burnt-out car in the foreground, two children in the middle distance. The final picture in the book was taken by someone else. It shows him being carried unconscious by two local youths, both of whom are shouting for help. To the left, another youth is clutching his head in horror and despair. What looks like a camera bag is hanging from Hurndall's waist. Beneath it, the dusty street is stained with blood.

In the frantic few minutes before this picture was taken, according to a first-hand account by the local co-ordinator of the International Solidarity Movement, Hurndall had rescued a young boy "trapped under fire behind a sand mound". Having carried the boy to safety, he went back to the same spot to rescue a young girl and, "as he was attempting to carry her, he got hit in the forehead by an Israeli sniper bullet".

Hurndall's journals, as Fisk puts it, "show a remarkable man of remarkable principle". His photographs, too, are testament to the strength of his commitment to the cause of non-violent protest, and to his courage. He caught the world around him in all its uncertainty and, as it grew more dangerous and threatening, his eye grew keener. The images he produced became, by turns, more unflinching and reflective. They tell their own story of a brief life lived to the full.

Now see this

To celebrate the publication of a photobook called Lyrics of Love, the first solo show of the work of the great Lithuanian photographer, Algirdas Šeškus, runs at London's White Space Gallery from 1-10 March. The exhibition brings together some of his iconic images from the 1970s. His style is impressionistic and centres on the everyday in keeping with his idea that photography should remain true to its origins. Lyrics of Love is a break with his more recognisable work, and presents often-romantic glimpses of a country that is part-real, part a product of his rich, visual imagination. A long overdue acknowledgment of a photographic pioneer.


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February 22 2012

Remi Ochlik - in pictures

French photojournalist Remi Ochlik has died in Syria, after a shell attack in Homs. Here is some of his award-winning work



December 22 2011

Artist of the week 169: Yto Barrada

A Tangier-based photographer and video artist who charts the struggles going on behind the scenes in tourist mecca Morocco

Morocco's mystique is synonymous with its famous fans: William Burroughs and the beats in the 1950s, who hung out in Tangier when the city was an international zone, and the Rolling Stones, who went seeking thrills in Marrakech a generation later. It's the go-to place to get inspired and indulge in druggy dalliances – or at least that's the view from Europe. The Tangier-based artist Yto Barrada's photos, films and sculptures give us a different picture – of the struggles of the people who live there.

The photography Barrada made her name with in the early 2000s captures a Tangier tortured by dreams very different from those in Western tourist brochures. The port town lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, which divides Morocco from Europe. While the Moroccan government steps up its tourist industry, attracting westerners free to travel as they please, many thousands of Moroccan immigrants attempt to make the illegal and perilous journey across the Strait every year. The spectre of this boundary haunts Barrada's images.

A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, started in 1998, is rife with dividing lines: muddy ditches slice across green fields, new builds spring up next to wastelands, kids jimmy holes in fences to play football and Ferris wheel spokes split the sky. While swimming pools gleam from tourist posters, new developments typically sit half-finished – the trappings of the developed world without the substance. People turn their backs or stare into the distance, lost in their desire for escape from a country defined by deprivation.

Barrada has an eye for showing everyday details that open up a mass of issues. That classic symbol of all things exotic, the palm tree, is the star of her works currently on show at Tate Modern. Actually a foreign import, palms turn out to be a point of controversy for Tangier's tourist industry in her film Beau Geste. Because of its protected status, a slender mop-haired tree is the only thing standing in the way of a Tangier landowner developing a scrappy patch of ground. To get around this, the tree has been hacked into in the hope that it will die naturally – so Barrada and her team set about patching it up with concrete to save it.

It's a futile gesture of conservation, tackling the power struggle around the growing city's precious vacant lots – a battle between locals, developers, plants and animals – with the absurdist charm of a Charlie Chaplin skit. That Barrada's concrete remedy will probably be ineffective is beside the point; rather, it's the small gesture of defiance in the face of relentless and thoughtless urbanisation that seems important.

Why we like her: Sporting half-blown lightbulbs and a scratched paint job, the metal palm tree Palm Sign might have been lifted from a rundown funfair. It speaks volumes about Tangier's ramshackle modernity.

Border control: Barrada originally studied political science before turning to art. The deciding moment came when she was living in Israel's West Bank and working on her thesis. To document how people negotiated roadblocks there she began using photography, and soon realised she wanted to tell the human stories beyond the facts and figures.

Where can I see her? I Decided Not to Save the World is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 8 January 2012


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