When you hear the phrase “women photographers” you probably imagine a series of images depicting the female body, some important event or a theme of modern third-wave of feminism women empowerment ever-present in the media. However, this time, we are not dealing with the Western world representation of feminism and women in art. Today, we are talking about brave women from the part of the world usually considered dangerous and elusive. We are talking about women photographers from Iran and the Arab world.
National Museum of Women in the Arts is proud to present the exhibition of images by 12 women photographers from the Arab world titled She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. This exhibition confronts the stereotypes surrounding the people, landscapes, and cultures of the region, and provides the eye-opening information about the political and social issues. She Who Tells a Story investigates the themes of war, identity, protest, and occupation. It debunks the myth of Arab and Iranian women as powerless and oppressed and illuminates the fact that these women are creating significant photographic work in that region. The artists featured in this exhibition are Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat and Newsha Tavakolian.
According to Susan Fisher Sterling, the director of NMWA, these pioneering artists inspire us to rethink our prejudiced notions about Iranian and Arab women and the art they produce. They openly but subtly invite us to walk a mile in their shoes and experience the complexities they face in their everyday lives. This exhibition is a highlight of their victory and their struggles. The title of the exhibition was inspired by the word rawiya, the Arabic word that means “she who tells a story”, and it is, concurrently, the name of a collective of the Middle East-based women photographers, founded in 2009. Each of the artists participating in this exhibition provides her vision of the world based on her own experiences, and each of these images invites the viewer to face their own assumptions. Kathryn Wat, the chief curator of NMWA, has said that these women have been the pathfinders in the medium of photography and video since their formation. She adds that this exhibition is the prime example of the work of women photographers that continues to reproduce and grow larger each day on a global scale.
The photographers and their work are displayed within categories that show the deconstruction of the stereotypes of Orientalism, which includes Middle Eastern, North African, and Eastern cultures. She Who Tells a Story was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and it is made possible at NMWA through the support of an anonymous donor, with additional funding provided by the Georgia Committee of NMWA.
Shirin Neshat’s Speechless (1996) from the series Women of Allah, is a result of a visit she made to her native Iran, some 15 years after the Iranian Revolution. This series signified a turning point in the recent history of dialogues and debates about the veiled female figure.
Lalla Essaydi, the Morrocan-born artist uses iconography from 19-th century Orientalist paintings as an inspiration and a starting point for the exploration of her own cultural identity. Her large-scale triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) depicts her usage of a predominantly male art form of calligraphy, and investigates the notions of the complexity of gender roles in the Islamic culture.
Boushra Almutawakel, the Yemeni artist, challenges the growth of religious extremism in Yemen and neighboring countries in her series Mother, Daughter, Doll. Her portraits protest the covering of young girls with the hijab.
Lebanese-born Rania Matar’s series A Girl and Her Room (2011) depicts young women posing comfortably in their bedrooms – their safe spaces. This personal and utterly poetic series explores the experience of coming of age, commonly shared among all young women in the world.
Newsha Tavakolian provides portraits of professional singers who are forbidden by Islamic principles in Iran because they are women. Her video shows women pronouncing silent words with great emotion, pointing out the recurring theme of imposed silence.
Shadi Ghadirian, one of Iran’s foremost contemporary photographers, investigates modern life in a postrevolutionary Iran with a focus on women in her series Nil, Nil (2008-2009).
Gohar Dashti, a Tehran-based artist, takes theatrical photographs in her series Today’s Life and War (2008), which juxtaposes the subtle and obvious signs of military presence.
Egyptian Rana El Nemr and Jordanian Tanya Habjouqa capture urban stories in photographs that tackle the notions of space, identity, and the sense of belonging. El Nemr’s The Metro and Habjouqa’s Women of Gaza both deal with the changes within the communities they are set in.
Rula Halawani, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, addressed the notions of displacement and destruction in the series Negative Incursions.
Cairo-based Nermine Hammam’s series Cairo Year One tackles the 19-day uprising in Egypt in January 2011 and its aftermath. Her prints depict soldiers in Tahrir Square with rural landscapes taken from postcards.
Jananne Al-Ani, the Iraqi-born artist, represents the Jordanian scenery from an airplane and reminds one of wartime aerial photography.
More than 80 photographs will be exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from April 8th to July 31st, 2016. Press review will be held on April 5th from 10 AM to 12 PM when the curator Kathryn Wat will give a tour and be available for questions. The publication She Who Tells a Story published by MFA Publication will accompany the exhibition. It is a 176-page book featuring the essays by Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karash, assistant curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Michket Krifa, an independent curator and art critic of Middle Eastern and African photography. The book will be available in the Museum Shop in hardcover for $40. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., near the White House.
Featured images: Gohar Dashti - Untitled #1, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Azita Bina, and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston; © Gohar Dashti | Rania Matar - Stephanie, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2010; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar | Tanya Habjouqa - Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009; Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.567; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Tanya Habjouqa - Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009, Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.565; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Brooklyn, New York, United States of America
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