Looking for Mecca

It comprises just 13 photos, six from Saudi Arabia and seven from South London, but Natasha Caruana's “Facing East” is one of the most ambitious photography exhibitions you'll see this year, for it attempts—with some success—to document that which is seldom seen in the Western world: the Muslim prayer ritual.

“Facing East” shows Muslim women ages 18 to 21 as they prepare for and are engaged in prayer, which devout Muslims (and they are) do five times a day. Caruana, soon to be a photography Master's student at London's Royal College of Art, was invited to photograph Muslims in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by the British Council as part of its positive-message student photographer exchange between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. She expanded upon her theme later in South London's Muslim community.

And her result is a revealing show—if you look long and hard. Otherwise, it's just richly-hued, untitled photographs of young women in full Muslim dress, looking for Mecca with large compasses, finding it, carefully setting out their prayer rugs, and then praying. It is very compelling upon close examination, but not a show with a quick payoff or an easy message.

The Muslim women Caruana was able to meet in Jeddah—and to convince to let her photograph them—are seen praying alone in their upper-middle-class homes, which, she says, is how they pray in Saudi Arabia: alone. They are prostrate, noticeably lit by flash beside ornately-carved coffee tables, under sweeping staircases and Dynasty-grade chandeliers. One woman, photographed as the sun sets through drawn blinds, is seen praying in its orange light, next to her big-screen TV. It is a strange juxtaposition, one rife with the potential for some cynical commentary on worshiping capitalism—but, perhaps rightfully, there is none here, for this is sheer documentary.

The Muslim women Caruana photographed in London are presented just the same: as they are. Her subjects here were rebelling against their parents, Caruana said at the opening. They were still devout and still prayed five times a day—but, dressed in their traditional full skirts and head coverings (maybe an LA Gear warm-up jacket), they would leave their homes to pray elsewhere: outside a mosque that was closed for renovations, in the forest, atop a parking garage. And she would follow. Several brought out compasses to find true East; in one photo, in a high school gym, a basketball hoop blurs behind the subject's deep gaze. One woman's scarf hangs on her shoulders, displaying her mane of hair as she and a friend lay out her prayer mat—in front of a giant galvanized steel guard rail. They're on the top floor of the parking garage, from which you can catch just a glimpse of the domes and spires of a nearby mosque.

This would never happen in Saudi Arabia; in Saudi Arabia, these women would not rebel. As women, they would be expected to pray at home—and they would. Similarly, when her show visits Jeddah in September, Caruana says, it will have one opening for family, and another just for men—to which she, the artist, cannot attend. She's a woman. Which is fascinating—and should be in the show. But it is not, and “Facing East” suffers as a result. Its subjects are well-chosen, its execution is near flawless, its composition beautiful, according to Laguna Art Museum's chief curator Tyler Stallings, who purchased three photographs on opening night. But there's not enough back story.

Caruana's curator, Pedro Vicente, tries to conceptualize her work. “It brings us closer and helps us to break the barriers which separate us from 'the other.' But at the same time, it gives us a more comprehensive and complete vision of ourselves,” he writes in the exhibition catalog—which is designed like a Muslim prayer book, its contents presented in English and Farsi. The show in Huntington Beach also includes an exhibition note about how the Muslim women photographed in South London were rebelling (otherwise, we'd never know that), and the catalog also explains the five times of day when Muslims typically pray. But that's it.

“Facing East” will not make the average Westerner one with “the other” because its tantalizing vision lacks context. (Its most intriguing element for us will very likely be a four-minute DVD slideshow of women kneeling to pray—its soundtrack an imam off-camera leading the call to prayer.) Neither will it give the average Westerner a more complete vision of himself—unless that vision already includes a comprehensive knowledge of and familiarity with Muslim culture and prayer. (Then, it might greatly enrich him.) It's facing East; it's knowing East—but it's not wholly communicating East, and as a result, this show is at times every bit as maddeningly elusive as the West typically finds the Middle East.


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