THE NATIONAL MUSEUM of Women in the Arts is nearing the end of its photography exhibit, “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.” The show, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, offers an engaging and authentic take on life in the Arab world, particularly for women. Amid the exoticism, fear and confusion surrounding the Middle East today, the exhibit works to both acknowledge and move past these preconceived notions. The show, which features 12 female artists who have lived or worked in the Middle East, is on view only until July 31 (so make sure to free up some time before it closes).
Despite what some may assume, there are plenty of men featured in the artwork — men as soldiers, as husbands, as protestors. However, it is the photos of women, by women, that speak the loudest. Artists Rana El Nemir and Rania Matar both show individual portraits that capture the emotional depth of their subjects, at once drawing viewers in and challenging them to confront the implications of their voyeurism. The artists’ work examines how public and private intersect in the lives of Arab women.
Nemir’s 2003 series “The Metro” depicts random women she encountered on a train. Unaware of the photographer’s presence, they’re absorbed in their own private thoughts. But, as the wall text reveals, the photos were taken on a gender-segregated metro, in a designated female car, leading the viewer to question what it means to be an Arab woman in public and how limitations on one’s public life function as both protection and subjugation.
Matar’s series “A Girl in Her Room” takes the opposite approach, turning a private space into a public one by photographing teenage girls in their bedrooms. The photos are staged, but by shooting the girls on their own turf, Matar conveys a sense of empowerment and realism alongside a more vulnerable intimacy. In one photograph, a girl living in a Palestinian refugee camp sits on a thin mattress in a bare and grimy room. Her outward stare invites viewers into her space and her life. In another, a girl also looks into the camera, but with a cool, imperious gaze, daring viewers to comment on her bright pink walls, her skimpy tank top, the bras scattered across her room. Matar captures the diversity of life in the Arab world without passing judgment. The girls aren’t defined solely by where or how they live, it is simply a part of their individual identities. Despite their differences, each photo captures a sense of the universal experience of the teenage girl, navigating the transition from child to adult.
The most violent photos are by Rula Halawani. Her documentary-style series “Negative Incursions” shows the destruction left in the wake of the 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank. The printed negatives, in eerily reversed black and white, show physical violence rather than the implied threats or societal opression featured in other works. This reminder of the corporal danger present in the conflict-ridden region helps place the rest of the photos in a wider context.
In contrast, Newsha Tavakolian’s photos, from her series “Listen,” are more controlled and aesthetically driven, but no less political. She photographed six female singers forbidden by the Iranian government from recording or performing publicly. Each standing against a sequined backdrop, the singers are caught in the middle of an unheard song (the opposite wall shows video recordings of the singers played without sound). The pieces are a comment on the silencing of female voices in Iran, but the grid of portraits points to another problem for Western viewers. All too often, we see Arab women as a type, indistinguishable in their category of “otherness.” The six portraits, all of veiled women, challenges our ability to recognize them as individuals capable of the same depth and complexity as we are.
In a statement at the exhibit entrance, MFA curator Kristen Gresh says she was warned that a show focused on women would only confirm the stereotype of Arab women as powerless. However, in the final product, this couldn’t be further from the truth. These photos tell the stories of women who are oppressed, who live in poverty or amid unspeakable violence. But through the very act of the artists telling these stories themselves and claiming their own voice, the art becomes an act of strength rather than weakness.
To this end, the exhibit features insightful quotes from the artists paired with their work. It’s a minor detail of the show, but one that is vital to the message behind it. By giving the women a platform to describe their work in their own words, rather than by remote scholarship, the exhibit takes yet another step to frame the art as triumph instead of exploitation.
A photo by Tayna Habjouqa from her 2009 “Women of Gaza” series shows a young girl taking a photo with her pink mobile phone that matches her headscarf. The girl is photographing the photographer, and by extension the viewers of the work. Instead of just a subject of a photo of oppression or even of misguided Western sympathy, she becomes an active participant in her own story, in the same way the artists themselves do. By flipping the script in this way, Habjouqa echoes the exhibit’s overarching theme of reversing expectations and societal roles.
In a final gesture, the exhibit invites visitors to comment on their experience: “a powerful reminder we are more alike than different as women”….”a truly humbling exhibit for a young Iranian-American, leaves my heart heavy yet hopeful” and “very moving images and stories of strength, patience, longing, humor, life and juxtaposition. Unforgettable.”
— Emily Harburg
Emily Harburg is an intern at MyLittleBird. She last wrote about the opening of BucketFeet Footwear in Shaw.