Marwan Bassiouni: New British Views | Workplace
There’s something about the low light of my homeland, depicted in a painting or a photograph, that pushes me to write about it: see previous examples from George Shaw, Mike Silva and Jock McFadyen. This time, it’s an exhibition from Marwan Bassiouni, whose impressively cosmopolitan background (Italian-Swiss-Egyptian-American) hasn’t stopped him depicting the most humdrum, low-lit British landscapes with notable sensitivity and skill.
Bassiouni’s conceit is simple: he shoots landscapes, seen through the windows of mosques and Islamic prayer rooms. The photos on show at Workplace are part of his latest series New British Views. Each features a slash of sky: clay coloured, vanilla coloured, pregnant with rain. A poignant contrast with the chintzy, colourful interiors.
Here’s a view looking out at a road junction, framed by bare branches and street lights, the arrows pointing the way to ‘Sparkbrook’ chipped and faded. In another photo, the mosque window overlooks a Victorian church, advertising ‘the heart of Christmas’. That’s not to say that the interiors haven’t seen better days themselves: prayer stools are splintered, paint occasionally peels from the walls, curtain rails are sometimes wonky.
Signifiers of place are kept to a minimum: all the photographs are just called New British Views, plus a number. But I found by Googling that Sparkbrook is in Birmingham. In another photo, looking closely at a plastic charity bucket balanced on a windowsill - with a view of the Lidl opposite - revealed that another prayer room was in Edgware, west London. The scenes are so typical - like home. The same goes for that watery light.
The uncanny stillness of Bassiouni’s photos is explained by the method of their composition: the artist uses multiple exposures in a single image, causing the foreground and background to appear equally focussed and creating an evenly distributed light. The prayer rooms seem windowless, their connection to the outside world total, the glass absolutely clear. In the gallery, there’s a gorgeous glossiness and depth of colour to these large pigment prints.
In the icy perfection of Bassiouni’s compositions, he seems clearly influenced by the German photographer Candida Höfer. The show notes point to an earlier inspiration: those jewel-like interior scenes from Dutch Golden Age masters like Pieter de Hooch.
I took a broader message from this collection - quite an uplifting one. It would have been easy for Bassiouni to have drawn the sharpest contrasts possible between interior and exterior, east and west, recent immigrant and less-recent immigrant. Instead, these well-used, slightly worn prayer rooms seem familiar rather than alien. At one with their damp, low-lit surroundings. At home.
Marwan Bassiouni: New British Views is at Workplace (London). 11 October - 19 November 2022