Female identity, both perceived and self-defined, is a complicated enough concept when explored in the context of a familiar culture. Add the dimension of a society that Westerners know largely through news accounts and the picture can become distorted through a lens of oblique realities imposed upon the observer.
A new exhibit, “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World,” currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art and running through Sept. 28, attempts to shatter common preconceived notions of what it means to be an Arab or Iranian woman.
The exhibit introduces the work of 12 women photographers from the Arab and Iranian world who use methods ranging from photojournalism to posed portraits in representing the varied dimensions of identity within the political and social context of their Middle Eastern countries of origin.
The exhibit premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2013 and was the first of its kind in the United States. It also was at Stanford University earlier this year. Pittsburgh is its third stop.
Kristen Gresh, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh assistant curator of photographs at MFA, Boston, put together this exhibit, she said, to “show new work to a new audience and put art and culture before politics.”
“I lived in Cairo 10 years ago, for a year and a half,” Gresh explained. “I made an observation while there that the most compelling work being made was by women.”
Gresh said that while the overall feedback on her exhibition has been positive, she did encounter some “resistance” while she was preparing it from an Iranian-born male artist who viewed the collected works as “perpetuating stereotypes.”
Gresh, however, rejects that categorization and sees the exhibit instead as challenging Western notions of women in the Middle East.
But like most modern art, the works can take on multiple meanings. One of the most striking series in the exhibit is “Mother, Daughter, Doll” (2010) by Boushra Almutawakel, who was born in Yemen in 1969. The sequence showcases nine photographs depicting the artist, her oldest daughter and the daughter’s doll wearing a progression of veils. The first photograph shows the mother with a light headscarf coordinating with her plaid jacket and her daughter and the doll with their heads uncovered. The mother and daughter are smiling. The photos progress to show the mother and daughter wearing darker and darker clothes, the daughter and doll’s heads covered, and the smiles fading. The niqab is introduced in the sixth photograph and black gloves in the seventh. In the eighth photo, a screen is placed over their eyes, and by the ninth photo, one cannot see them at all, lost in a sea of black.
“With symbolically charged images of veiling, Almutawakel both denounces its extremes and introduces the complexity of the subject to its viewers,” writes Gresh in the catalogue published to accompany the exhibit. “Her work challenges the Western perception of the hijab as well as the growing trend in the Middle East for more covering.”
The artist herself wears a hijab, according to the catalogue, which quotes Almutawakel as saying: “I don’t feel comfortable without it in many places in Yemen. … It is empowering in some ways as it protects and privatizes the woman’s body.”
In contrast to Almutawakel’s series is the work of Rania Matar, who was born in Beirut in 1964 and moved to the United States when she was 20 years old. The photos exhibited from Matar’s series “A Girl and Her Room” (2009-2012) show teenagers from the Middle East in their bedrooms with the subjects in settings of contrasts. The dyed-blonde “Christilla” is shown with a disordered collection of shoes on the floor that are juxtaposed to neatly arranged DVDs, under a large poster of Marilyn Monroe.
Several of these photos could just have likely been taken in a typical teenage girl’s bedroom in the United States. Others, though, are markedly different, depicting young Palestinian women in rooms more stark, paint peeling from the walls and a prayer rug or a small cutout of a Palestinian flag displayed on their walls. All the girls in this series project a look of angst in various degrees common among Western teenagers, too.
More than 70 works are showcased in “She Who Tells a Story.” In addition to Yemen and Lebanon, the artists originate from or are currently based in Morocco, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Jerusalem.
Tanya Habjouqa, born in Germany and now working out of Jerusalem, displays “Women of Gaza” (2009) in the exhibit, a series of photos she took in 2009, with the Gazans under the rule of Hamas. One photo in this series shows a woman in a niqab waiting alone on a bench, holding a black bag with a small teddy bear attached to it, adding a humanizing dimension to a figure whose only other uncovered attributes are her eyes. Another photo shows three women in an exercise class—fully covered—turning away from the camera. The class is taking place on a basketball court, underlining the limited availability of public space available for women in Gaza.
Rula Halawani, born into a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem, studied photography at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and did her graduate work at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. After earning her degrees, she returned to her home and was employed as a photojournalist for Reuters before becoming an independent photographer focusing on Palestinians.
“Negative Incursions” (2002) was one of her first projects after leaving photojournalism. The series is comprised of photographs printed as negatives that she shot during Operation Defensive Shield, at the height of the second intifada. In the haunting series, Halawani captures such subjects as displaced persons and homes reduced to rubble.
“As negatives, they express the negation of our reality that the invasion represented,” she describes in the catalogue.
The images are haunting, with the IDF soldiers portrayed as surreal monsters through Halawani’s technique of using negative imagery, although lacking the context of the Palestinian terrorism that led to the IDF’s incursion.
Photos by one of Iran’s leading contemporary photographers, Shadi Ghadirian, explore life in post-revolutionary Iran. In her series Nil, Nil (2008-09), objects symbolic of war are juxtaposed with feminine pieces, creating, effectively, a new take on the still life. Stark contrasts such as red patent leather high heels next to a pair of dirty combat boots show that domestic life continues despite military upheaval. In another photo, one has to look twice to see a grenade amongst the oranges and apples and grapes displayed as a centerpiece in a glass bowl on a dining table.
At the end of the exhibit, two large magnetic boards display notes written by visitors to the exhibit, some in Arabic and some in English. “There have been a lot of really spontaneous comments made,”Gresh pointed out. “People are really engaging with the work.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.