New photo exhibit highlights artistic legacy of the Middle East

April 25, 2019 by Jovana Jankovic - A&S News

PhD candidate Marjan Moosavi, a drama and theatre scholar from Iran, is aiming to fill a gap in research about Middle Eastern theatre — and to dispel myths about the region in the process.

Moosavi knows the Middle East “has an image problem,” largely due to Western stereotypes about repressive regimes who censor artists, experimentation and freedom of expression.

While this has been true in some countries and eras, the Middle East also boasts a rich and diverse history in the performing arts, one which Moosavi aims to highlight in her new photo exhibit, Middle Eastern Theatre and Performance (1950-1970), now on view in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.

“This exhibit is an attempt to celebrate the diversity and audacity of the dramatic arts created by artists of Arab, Persian, Turkish and many other ethnicities,” says Moosavi. “Not much is known about the Middle East’s performance traditions, the multiplicity of its theatrical practices and the credibility of its artists’ socio-political commitment.”

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L to R: Afife Jale (1902-1941) from Turkey, Fatimah Rushdie (1908-1997) from Egypt, and Varto Teryan (1896-1974), Iranian Armenian actress.

Originally from Iran, Moosavi came to Canada in 2012 after having lived and worked in China, the US and Sweden. The variety of environments and cultures she’s experienced has given her a global view of her area of research, and she points out that drama and theatre studies in the West are significantly Eurocentric.

“Very few plays or theatre artists of the Middle Eastern region can be found in the curricula of Western drama and theatre programs,” she says. She set out to change this by designing and teaching an undergraduate course on the history of performance and theatre in West Asia and North Africa.

“Creating that course was the main inspiration and starting point for curating this exhibit,” she says.

The exhibit features 85 photos from seven countries in the Middle East — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. The photos are categorized into four themes: “Traditional Performances,” “Original Plays (1960-1970),” “Adaptations (1960-1970),” and “Women Pioneers.”

The show features photos of iconic pieces like Sunset in a Strange Land, a play written and directed by acclaimed Iranian playwright, filmmaker and theatre historian Behram Beyzai, who has been Daryabari Visiting Professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford University since 2000. Beyzai comes from a long lineage of artists — his uncle, Adib Beyzai, is widely acclaimed as one of the most brilliant poets of 20th-century Iran.

woman on floor, man with a sword point up standing

Still from Sunset in a Strange Land, Iran, 1965. Written and directed by Bahram Beyza’i (b. 1938) and produced by National Theatre Group; also performed at the festival of Théâtre des Nations in France.

Beyzai’s play is one of Moosavi’s favourite photos in her exhibit. “The piece is actually a puppet play that was performed by human actors attached to long strings manipulated by the narrator,” she says. “It draws heavily on stories and characters from traditional performances, but also re-fashions old forms into a Western-style performance frame in order to create a new, yet authentic, artistic identity.”

Another photo she is particularly fond of features Evening Party for the Fifth of June, a Syrian play written by playwright and theatre critic Sa’adallah Wannous. The play depicts the displacement of Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, while also mounting a direct critique of the Syrian government.

“Influenced by the tradition of public storytelling (al-Hakawati), the play is set in a coffee house and has strong elements of meta-theatre,” says Moosavi. “Wannous worked hard on creating an Arabic theatrical style and language, and I consider this to be one of the most political plays in the Arab world.”

Finally, the photos in the “Women Pioneers” theme of the exhibit are particularly inspiring to Moosavi. “These women were audacious and aspiring playwrights, directors, translators and teachers who subjected their private and public lives to threats and tensions in order to swim against the stream.”

Moosavi’s passion for researching and teaching the history of Middle Eastern theatre is evident in her efforts to curate this exhibit. “I had a very minimal budget and yet I collected a treasure of more than 100 photos,” she says. “Many of the photos were low resolution and even damaged. And more than half a century ago, theatrical activities in the region were not extensively or even accurately documented.”

In the end, Moosavi overcame the obstacles of insufficient historical documentation and lost archives to compile a crucial collection of photos that depict a part of Middle Eastern history that is not well known in the West.

She hopes visitors to the exhibit will walk away with “the curiosity to delve into under-represented cultures and untold histories.”

“I’m particularly grateful to Journey Photography for designing and printing my display boards, my wonderful volunteers, my husband for his support and the theatre departments at the universities in Tehran, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut,” says Moosavi.

The exhibition is also supported by the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, the Hart House Good Ideas Fund and Professor Stephen Johnson of the CDTPS.

Middle Eastern Theatre and Performance (1950-1970), curated by Marjan Moosavi, is on view until May 1, 2019 in the lobby of the Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies on the 3rd floor of the Koffler Student Centre.