Cherwell

Art review: Unreported Worlds

Promotional photo: https://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/discover/events/exhibition-unreported-worlds-seeing-overlooked/

There was something appropriately humble about the exhibition space of the Barn Gallery of St. John’s College. Its recently lacquered pine hardwood floors and quiet, off-white walls reminded me of a local parish centre whose similar walls fondly watched over many twelve year olds’ birthday parties and school discos. It seemed a rather apt modesty of a space to emphasize the framed photographs lining the walls were unquestionably worthy of someone’s complete attention.

Curated by contributing photographer Uwe Ackerman, Unreported Worlds: Seeing the Overlooked at St. John’s Barn Gallery was definitely worth undivided and meticulous attention. Meant to explore the unexplored, the exhibition ventured to depict a variety of previously unseen cultures. The six contributing photographers’ work spans the cultures of the Middle East, Eurasia, East Africa and Central America with a coherent artistic skill that simultaneously highlights the breath-taking idiosyncrasies of these cultures, yet leaves an overarching impression that we are viewing singular components of what it means to be universally human.

Ackerman himself worked to present the beautiful banalities of Haitian culture, capturing moments stumbled across during conservation work with the Seamark Trust. His curation of the rest of the exhibition includes sibling teachers Saeedeh and Saeed Kouhkan and shopkeeper Ehsan Mortazavi who—through their own amateur lens—seek to capture their community in Behbahan, Iran in an effort to cause a ripple of influence for the better. Similarly, we have the chance to view Beirut through local photography student Rami Maassarani. Although claiming to explore the consciously “foreign”, Unreported Worlds avoids being suffocatingly quintessential in its portrayal of the ‘exotic’ culture.

We see a young child, perched like a bird ready for flight on her fathers shoulders, in a full delicately rose-printed hijab (‘Girl and Veil’, Mortavazi). Next to this photograph another young girl’s face, darker with salt-stained braids and a slightly older and more quizzical expression (‘In Presque Isle’, Ackermann). Yet, these images are far too personal to merit any sort of generalisation. They are of two little girls, but they are not both of “a little girl”, rather simply “this little girl” on two separate, individual occasions. Thus, the exhibition of unreported worlds acts as a snapshot moment of the world’s kaledeioscopic plural personality that could not allow the ‘her’ of either of these images to simply be ‘the Other’.

The diversity of these images are not only commendable for their honest acknowledgment of the welcome fragmentation of the world’s identity. They are equally commendable for presenting a holistic image of a culture within itself, furthering the complexity of unknown cultures rather than their misunderstanding. These photographers cut, image to image, from the everyday ritual of Halva making—with women laying out slices of the desert on a baking-papered round tray as if they were sea shells decorating the sand—to the celebration of the Day of Ashura, whose pictorial representation speaks microcosmically of the conflict between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims (both images by Saeed Koukkan).

Bharat Patel draws out the sensations of his images—the dust that dances around feet, the hard Ethiopian sunlight that clogs the air and the sharp whipping of a slender stick cutting from sky to earth—to leave the emotional impression we must relate to in order to understand the whipping ritual of the Hamar tribe girls. It is spectacular and it is hair-raising.

Each symbol placed, on clothing, hair or skin is pivotally planned for this moment. Equally, however, Patel presents the more magically mundane moments of the same culture. A man stands alone—his stance is not symbolic, nor foreign, yet just as sensational. He simply ponders his own questions as the dry grass gently whispers around him. The photographers of Unexplored Worlds present a multi-faceted nature to the peoples they depict, crumbling any impression of stereotype and leaving only generalising similarity.

Half of the contributors are ‘subjects’ of these very same cultures. Through the lens of the Kouhkans and Mortazavi we see the ‘real’ Behbahan. Although set against the unfamiliar backdrop of the Zagros Mountains or against Imamzadeh shrines, their expressions and interactions remain familiar through the camera of an assimilated photographer.

Saeedeh Kouhkan’s depictions of the all-girls school she teaches at spoke of the same dynamics I knew and loved during my secondary education: the shared conversation between new-found female friendship caught on camera as a moment belonging to that specific situation, but still not an unfamiliar moment at that.