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Aftermath essentializes the Middle East

Gund Gallery exhibit removes context and history from images.

The current exhibit at the Gund Gallery, Aftermath: The Fallout of War is full of good intentions.  I am certain its creators hope to encourage empathy and concern by showing the very real suffering of Muslims and Arabs in the aftermath of violence and war.  However, that goal is undercut by the fact that Aftermath is pervaded by what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism,” the representation of non-Western cultures in ways that reinforce imperialist conceptions of what they are.

Aftermath depicts a “Middle East” in which places that are thousands of miles away from each other — Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan — are all somehow the same place. We are never told what connects these places. Perhaps religion? The people shown in the photographs are largely Muslim, many of them wearing clothing, headscarves and beards that conform to ethnic stereotypes. The jarring exceptions are photographs of American soldiers shown suffering as the result of their contact with “the Middle East.” Photos depicting Syrian refugees, wounded survivors of war in Iraq and limbless men in Afghanistan hang next to each other as if it is all one territory with one shared history, or more accurately, lack of history. The “Middle East” becomes somehow timeless and unchanging. One wall displays 19th-century photographs of Afghans paired with corollary black-and-white contemporary photos, as if to tell us that in “the Middle East” things never change. Another displays huge black-and-white images of 21st-century Afghans photographed to look like they are somehow from a previous century. 

Aftermath depicts people who have suffered tremendous loss — refugees, people who have lost limbs, people lacking food and water. But the reasons for this suffering are seldom examined. Are the causes of conflict in Libya, Palestine and Afghanistan all the same? Should we erroneously assume that Muslims are inherently more prone to be perpetrators or victims of violence? More importantly, there are almost no images of people engaged in resistance.

That is not to say there are not great examples of photography in the exhibition. I imagined how much more powerful Eman Muhammed’s images of Palestine or Rania Matar’s photographs of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon would have been in stand-alone exhibits that provided a real context in which to view them. However, with all these images jumbled together, the history — and thus the humanity — of the people depicted is easily lost. Aftermath depicts “the Middle East” as an inherently dangerous place.

Clearly, the creators of Aftermath did not intend to facilitate Orientalist stereotypes; but that, is the insidious nature of Orientalism. Stereotypes surrounding “the Middle East” are so built into our academic, journalistic, artistic and political discourse that they become largely invisible. While the creators of Aftermath undoubtedly set out to shine a light on human suffering, they may have simultaneously facilitated inaccurate stereotypes about the “Middle East” as the timeless “Other” defined by religion and violence.  Rather than being moved to help Syrian refugees, one could easily imagine people looking at Aftermath and deciding, “Let’s build a wall and keep ‘the Middle East’ out.” That would be a tragedy.

Vernon Schubel is a professor of religious studies. You can contact him at schubel@kenyon.edu.