Inessential views of art and photography.
Last summer we had the opportunity to discover established and emergent female photographers from the Middle East. The National Museum of Women in the Arts , Washington DC featured the exhibition “She Who Tells a Story”. Over 80 photographs and video installations by twelve artists originally brought together by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, allowed viewers to dive into contemporary stories of struggles, transitions and expectations lived by women in Iran and the Arab World. The focus of the exhibition and the selection of work was highly political. It preceded this time of even more extreme racism, bigotry and misogyny in the US. The currency of the show is undeniable as it is the urgency of revisiting it.
A theme that was common to most of the work showcased, was the question of authenticity and truth. Many of the visual artists interrogated both the ethos and the role of documentary image making. Rula Halawani ‘s large prints question the photographic truth by highlighting the alien nature of the political circumstances that define the mundane in her country. Rania Matar takes pictures of young women in their bedrooms. Her work is a visual delight as well as sociological exploration of contemporary femininity. Since then, we have seen her work featured in other exhibitions, photography festivals, photo-book sales and photography blogs. Last June, when I visited Rayko Photo Center (now sadly closed down), her work stood out from the walls as well as from the bookshelves. Perhaps due to her focus on stories of becoming, her work trespasses geographical and social boundaries. Plus, her portraits are BEAUTIFUL.
The work of Shadi Ghadirian was Patri’s favourite. She found Ghadirian’s exploration of Iranian women very stimulating both visually and conceptually. Her work references all-time photography classics while adding a powerful layer of post-colonialism to it. Ghadirian’s women would navigate the traditional and the cutting edge effortlessly, if only the patriarchal and conservative frames imposed onto their realities would vanish.
Jake found “The Hijab Series” by Boushra Almutawakel most compelling. Her prints were grouped together on a dimmed lit wall display. When entering the room in which they hung, visitors sighed with surprise when encountering the image below. It is undeniably powerful and very iconic. The series gains depth and relevance as it explores gender identity and religion not only through light and props, but more importantly through facial expressions (emotions). Her work interrogates social constructs from a place of empathy, irreverence and respectful playfulness, which is very very fresh.
Although the exhibition in itself is a political act, and a quite brave one, the question of gender beyond the hetero-normative binary was not really explored. However, several of the showcased photographers have done so in their work. Almutawakel timidly incorporates this question into her work, but you will need to visit her website to see those images, as they were not part of “She Who Tells a Story”. The same is true of Tanya Habjouqa‘s work, which includes a serious study of the trans community in the Middle East.
Kristen Gresh, the curator of the exhibition talks about the political relevance of the work that makes up the exhibition, as well as of the presence of war in all of it, albeit subtle at times.
“I’ve been following the contemporary photography scene in Iran and the Arab World for the past several years and the most powerful, provocative and compelling work I found is to be by women photographers”.
Listen to her talking about “She Who Tells a Story” at BBC Picture This.
The exhibition has been travelling since 2013 and it will open again on November 27th at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario Canada.