Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Book Review

visual culture middle eastVisual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image. Edited by Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013. Pp. xxvii, 343, with bibliography and index. ISBN: 9780253008886.

Christiane Gruber is an Associate Professor of Islamic Art, Department of Art History, University of Michigan, and Sune Haugbolle is an Associate Professor in Global Studies and Sociology in the Department for Society and Globalization at Roskilde University. Together they compiled their research and other researchers’ findings about visual culture in the modern Middle East.

This book, which consists of four parts, focuses on visual culture as a multidisciplinary field. It investigates the various tools, such as posters, banners, graffiti, and cartoons on the walls of the streets, in books, on television, the internet, or other digital media that have been used to communicate in modern and traditional Middle Eastern cultures. These tools are discussed as the media for distributing power and speaking with viewers within their Islamic values, which have evolved over time in Middle Eastern countries.

Part 1 focuses on moving images and how they can deliver a message to the public. Gruber argues that images could have many forms and communicate multiple messages. Their meanings must not be simplified into crude dichotomies such as “Islamic” vs. “non-Islamic” or the division of “West” vs. the “Rest.” Rather, they must be explored across time and within their local environments and through cross-cultural frameworks. Karimi discusses the concept of “modernized Islam” and how the traditional images from Western advertisements are being used to emphasize contradictory meanings and the importance of values in Islam. For example, the importance of privacy at home and an advertisement for a curtain could draw a link between women’s bodies, materialism, the home, and the visual barriers.

In relating memory and ideology, Heidermann shares examples in Syria and Iraq and how images of individuals have been used in a political rhetoric and as a product of Western and Middle Eastern imagination. Kubala claims that new visual art and entertainment genres might play a role in cultivating cultures and preserving their identities. He gives meaningful examples of the growth of music television in pan-Arab satellite broadcasting. While some were against the whole concept of using video clips in broadcasting, others supported the visual religion vs. the audio one. This opened the perception of “clean cinema” and “purposeful art” for artists to serve as a model to convey socially constructive messages in their works.

Part 2 covers the topic of Islamic iconographies. Savash and Azak discuss how images could direct viewers to an existing or rising issue in a broader society. An example is the image of the “crying boy” in 1970–1980 in Turkey. This was an icon used by the Islamic movement to show the loss of moral and religious values, causing awful circumstances due to the political situation in Turkey. In contemporary Turkey, however, the image is replaced by an image of a smiling child, indicating that new Islamic subjectivities and practices could coexist between the traditional and modernized Islamic society. Using images accompanied by visual texts and icons, Al-Marashi demonstrates the connection between secular and religious, Western and Eastern, Islamic and non-Islamic, in the reconfiguration of power. He shares examples of Tehran and the way the concept of the Martyr (Shahid) and its imposing images on the walls of its streets are less graphic but more aesthetic compared to the early years of Islamic Revolution. This represents the value of modern visual culture in today’s modern Islamism.

Part 3 focuses on the usage of satirical contestations in visual culture. Gencer examines various aspects of national identity of the Turkish Republic and their messages on modernity, secular life, and Turkish nationalism. These messages are characterized by cartoons as an anti-modernity and anti-secularism vehicle. She argues that the cartoons dealt with the reforms of the early republican period supporting secularism and ridiculing Islam by caricaturing the leading figures at that time to justify their claims. Vanderlippe and Batur, on the other hand, claim that similar images are getting used for both secular and anti-secular discourse. They believe this is the result of the unfinished agenda of the opposing ideologies. Haugbolle uses Naji al-Ali as an example of an Arab cartoonist within critical literature. Naji used his own life experiences as a refugee to express the aspirations of Palestinians and Arabs as a whole. He used religion as part of the historical and political identity to separate the Arab cultural realm from a secular Arab nationalist viewpoint. Haugbolle says the challenge of maintaining the secular reading of history seems to be more manageable in light of the 2011 uprising and it is supported by using icons that refer back to a time when secular readings of history were taken for granted.

Part 4 discusses authenticity and reality in trans-national broadcasting. Salamandra suggests that drama could go where politics could not. This opened the door to TV drama making room for critiques of religious conflict. She says millions of Arabs support the TV drama production as a mean to bring awareness of issues in their country.

Kraidy reasons that in the reign of King Faisal movie theaters were banned not because of the fear of images, but because of the large and dark theaters providing a space that encourages “ekhtilat,” a free mix of genders among movie goers. She argues that Arab music videos and TV shows are allowed because they didn’t pose the same risk of possible interaction between men and women as movie theaters do. Kraidy closes his argument by saying that Mieke Bal’s quote that “Focusing on questions of what is made visible, who sees what, how seeing, knowing and power are interrelated” could help us to develop a global awareness in studying visual culture as a field of contention.

This book is a good source for analyzing the movement of visual art and culture and its outgrowth in Islamic subjectivities and values, from traditional to modern Islamism in the Middle East.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour

Chapman University