A Show of Strength by Middle Eastern Women Photographers
by Kerri MacDonald, Lens, New York Times
Despite the cultural limitations many have faced, women have been at the forefront of photography in Iran and the Arab world. In societies dominated by men, female photographers are using images to raise questions and explore issues of identity. They’re telling stories — often their own.
“I was raised with people trying to tell me what to do and think,” said Newsha Tavakolian, who shoots for The New York Times from Iran. “Now I want those looking at my work to have their own opinions. I don’t want to enforce any ideas or views upon them. They are free.”
Ms. Tavakolian‘s work is included in “She Who Tells a Story,” an exhibition showcasing 12 photographers from the Arab world, all women. She was encouraged to tell her story “in a different way” when she lost her permit to work as a photojournalist in Iran in 2009. Her photography, she said last week via e-mail, has been shaped by limitations.
But, she said: “The obstacles I have faced are not so special, nor have they been overall specific to me: my sisters, my friends and even my mother and grandmother all have to deal with limitations written up in laws or demanded by culture.”
“She Who Tells a Story” opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this week. Four of the artists included are Iranian; three — Ms. Tavakolian, Gohar Dashti and Shadi Ghadirian — live and work in Iran today. The exhibit also highlights work by Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar and Shirin Neshat, the fourth Iranian artist, who lives in New York.
The curator of the exhibition, Kristen Gresh, noticed something when she started to follow contemporary photography from the Arab world — images she was seeing in exhibitions while living in Cairo and Paris.
“It seemed like the strongest work was made by women,” said Ms. Gresh, 37, the museum’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh assistant curator of photographs.
While searching for artists to include in “She Who Tells a Story,” Ms. Gresh had “no specific geographic requirements,” she said. She was simply looking for powerful photographs.
In an introduction to the exhibit, she confronts one challenge it has faced: “Though these photographers challenge stereotypes,” she writes, “the choice to unite them as a group has been seen by some, ironically, as confirming a stereotype.”
But the work of the artists is varied in motivation, subject and form. Ms. Gresh said one uniting theme is the “complexities of identity.”
The phrase “She Who Tells a Story” comes from the word rawiya (which is also the name of a collective of female photographers working in the Middle East). But the exhibit doesn’t tell one story; it tells many.
It begins with work from the 1990s, when Ms. Neshat, in particular, began “breaking boundaries” in terms of representation, Ms. Gresh said. It examines how others have posed similar questions in the years since then — and how photographers like Ms. Neshat, who became known internationally in the ’90s, have grown and changed.
For instance, in her earlier work, Ms. Al-Ani, an Iraqi artist, often explored the meaning of the veil. “She feels like today the veiled woman has so many other connotations that she no longer uses the veil as a device,” Ms. Gresh said.
And so the exhibit includes a newer series by Ms. Al-Ani: a film shot from a plane when the sun was at its lowest point in the sky, exposing parts of the landscape that viewers wouldn’t normally see and upsetting the idea that the Middle East is an empty desert.
Some of the work Ms. Gresh has chosen is more typical of documentary photography. Ms. Matar’s series “A Girl and Her Room” includes portraits of young women in Lebanon and the West Bank posed in their bedrooms (one of which is a small corner of a Palestinian refugee camp).
Ms. Matar’s wider project also includes American subjects. “Girls are girls, no matter where they are, somehow,” Ms. Matar said by telephone from Boston, where she is based. “I mean, they’re going through the same transition, whether they are deciding to wear the veil or whether they are painting their hair pink.”
Ms. Matar, an architect-turned-photographer who was born in Lebanon, said she has always found it important to focus not only on the destruction “but the humanity behind it.”
“It’s refreshing to have this exhibit right now,” she said of “She Who Tells a Story,” “because I think all we’re seeing from the Middle East — it’s sadness, it’s death, it’s killing.”
Ms. Gresh agrees. “I think this is a moment to not be focused on the immediate violence and current events,” she said. “Certainly, some of the deeper questions are present in this work. But it’s a very different point of view and it’s from photographers who either are based there or have roots there.”
The image chosen for the cover of the book, by Ms. Dashti, brings daily life together with war in a stark way. Set in a drab landscape dotted with tanks, the photo shows a couple wearing wedding attire in an abandoned car — “an uncertain vehicle for embarking on a new life,” Ms. Gresh notes in the book (Slide 1).
The photo comes from Ms. Dashti’s 2008 series “Today’s Life and War,” which includes 10 staged narratives focused on the couple. “It’s very much about untold stories of war,” Ms. Gresh said —, and about war’s constant presence.
Ms. Tavakolian said that while the exhibit cannot really not change anything about the current situation in Egypt or elsewhere in the region, what it could do is help “provide people with the opportunity to see some different perspectives from the region.”
Her project that is included in the exhibit, “Listen,” includes portraits of six Iranian women mid-song, posed in front of richly colored sequined curtains (above). The singers’ performances, silent here, are forbidden in Iran.
Ms. Tavakolian, formerly an aspiring singer herself, didn’t seek to provide answers with ”Listen.” She had no agenda. “For me, what mattered,” she wrote in an e-mail, “was the art of singing and the emotions of these singers who want to sing but can’t.”
Via Lens, New York Times