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A myriad of ordinary lives: postcards from the Islamic world

a black and white photo showing four Uzbek women in traditional dress and headgear applying make up to their faces

zbekistan Photographic print in album photographer and date unknown.

A timely photographic journey into the Islamic world spans the centuries by drawing on historical and contemporary imagery at Asia House

A celebration of historical diversity and a reminder of what has been lost or weakened by cultural destruction, social change and political upheaval, this timely exhibition showcases the striking diversity of the Islamic world.

Departures: A Photographic Journey Through the Islamic World spans three centuries and draws upon a unique collection of historical photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries alongside a selection of contemporary images from photographers on Instagram.

The result is a revealing historical and contemporary snapshot of social and cultural life that travels from Morocco in the West to China in the East, and from the Balkans in the North to Sudan in the South.

An ambitious exhibition that presents a journey of discovery beyond the narrow stereotypes of the region as sectarian, war-torn and culturally bereft, the exhibition aims to highlight the rich heritage of the region, exploring its ancient urban centres such as Cairo, Istanbul and Damascus, its traditions of travel, trade and artisanship, and its varied styles of costume and architecture.

a colour postcard of three men sitting on a cot in a bazaar waring knee length breeches, waistcoats, billowing shirts and fezes and turbans

Bosnia Postcard publisher J Studnicka and Co Sarajevo date unknown

a black and white postcard with two windmills

Aden Yemen Postcard Windmills at Salt works Aden photographer Mr A Abassi V Photographic Studio Aden date unknown.

The title ‘Departures’ is designed to reflect the eager, observing eyes of travellers who have questioned, courted, and recorded the Islamic world from the earliest days of photography. These images are the fruit of travel and enquiry, made increasingly possible by ships and railways, then the jet engine, television and internet.

The exhibition also suggests that, despite the advent of these improved forms of travel and communication, the Islamic world has become increasingly alien and misunderstood in the West.

“the media presents a flattened view of the Islamic world, based largely on stereotypes”

“The Islamic world has, in its history, produced and sustained a great diversity of cultural identities, including regional styles of costume, architecture and artisanship,” says exhibition curator Richard Wilding.

“These were recorded with great enthusiasm from the earliest days of photography. But today, despite improved forms of travel and communication, the media presents a flattened view of the Islamic world, based largely on stereotypes and limited frames of reference.

a black and white photo of a people moving through a shaded souk in Morocco

Fez Morocco Postcard Dans les rues mysterieuses photographer Flandrin date unknown

a colourised photo of a woman wearing a long flowing persian/arab style headdress, smock skirt and white tights

Iran Postcard Persian lady in home dress publisher Raphael Tuck and Sons London date unknown

“These images show a rich and varied culture, and surprising scenes from everyday life, in an era before the more recent homogenisation, cultural destruction and regional turmoil.”

Wilding who is a London-based photographer and filmmaker specialising in the documentation of heritage, cultural identity and costume in the Middle East, co curated the exhibition with Tarik Alireza, an architect based in Jeddah.

Alireza has avidly collected historical photographs and postcards of the Islamic world for the past 40 years. He is also a leading authority on the postal history of the Middle East. The material for this exhibition comes from Alireza’s personal collection and the images have never previously been shown publicly in the UK.

Juxtaposed with the exhibition’s historical photographs is a mosaic of the Islamic world today seen through a curated sequence of images from the social media platform Instagram. Taken by talented amateur photographers, the present-day photographs reveal dynamic and diverse cultures – places where a multitude of people live a myriad of ordinary lives.

The result is a thoughtful journey through historical and contemporary eyes designed to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes ever-present in the Islamic world.

a colourised postcard showing a fete in Suez with many people wearing turbans and children sitting in wooden rides on stilts

Suez Egypt Postcard Fete arabe a Suez photographer and date unknown

Departures: A Photographic Journey Through the Islamic World is at Asia House, London from April 12 to May 3 2019.


Asia House

London, Greater London

Asia House was established in London in 1996. Aims: To promote appreciation and understanding of Asian countries, their arts, religions and economies, and to foster closer communication between the peoples of Asia and Europe; to establish a centre for educational, corporate or cultural programmes; to offer these facilities to all…

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