She Who Tells A Story

BOUSHRA ALMUTAWAKEL
BORN IN YEMEN IN 1969
LIVES IN SANA’A, YEMEN AND PARIS

“I wanted to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, the power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, the variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, the beauty, mystery….”

The first photograph in “The Hijab” series shows a young woman veiling herself with the American flag. Created in 2001 in response to 9/11, the image questions the charged symbolism of the headscarf—particularly in Western media—as well as the implications of wearing one’s national identity on one’s head.

It’s rare that we get a glimpse of the lives of women in the Arab world, and rarer still that we see life captured through the lenses of women photographers in that world. In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story,” and it’s the name of an exhibition of photographs captured by women with roots in Iranian and Arab cultures. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” includes work from 12 prominent photographers spanning the 1990s to today, providing insight into a political and social world that’s historically misrepresented and misunderstood. The images are of people, landscapes and cultures of a region in the middle of a massive change, an upheaval that’s more complex and nuanced than implied by Western media. We share some of those photographs here. The larger exhibition has traveled the country and is now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., from April 8 through July 31. Visit nmwa.org.


Newsha Tavakolian, Maral Afsharian, from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print, 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN
BORN IN IRAN IN 1981
LIVES IN TEHRAN, IRAN

“Imaging a dream.

Eyes closed, mouths open, as if in a dream.
Standing facing us with their backs to the
darkness, they sing, soundless; they have been
standing here, singing for themselves for a long
time, imagining us, hearing. Standing, facing
the days of tedium, facing a world that has
adorned them with a false crown.

Standing, waiting.”

In 2009, Tavakolian faced obstacles photographing in public in Iran and turned to fine-art photography to address social issues. Her “Listen” series comprises portraits of professional Iranian singers who, as women, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to record albums or perform in public. In these portraits, the glamour of the sequined backdrops for the private performances recalls the sets of prerevolutionary Iranian television shows. Tavakolian’s passion for these women’s stories led her to create imaginary photographic CD covers that represent the character of each performer, inspired by Persian feminist slogans. When I Was Twenty Years Old depicts a young woman wearing red boxing gloves in front of the cityscape of Tehran, evoking ideas of youth, protest, and empowerment. In Don’t Forget This Is Not You she stands in a vast, wavy ocean like a modern Venus, the album title underscoring the limitations on her freedom. In silent video clips of the performances, the women can be seen but not heard, paralleling their professional situation.


Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

LALLA ESSAYDI
BORN IN MOROCCO IN 1956
LIVES IN NEW YORK

Like much of Essaydi’s work, this image is reminiscent of a scene from a 19th century Orientalist painting. Here, however, the elaborate decorative patterns that cover and surround the figure’s body are composed of silver and golden bullet casings. The use of the casings evokes symbolic violence and is a reference to her fear about growing restrictions on women in a new post-revolutionary era, following the events of the Arab Spring. With multi-layered references to cultural, social, and political identities, this triptych is also self-reflexive about the medium itself—the uncropped film borders allude to the artifice of photography and emphasize its ability to create false realities.


Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled, from the series “Qajar,” 1998; Gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 x 11 7/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography and Abbott Lawrence Fund; © Shadi Ghadirian; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

SHADI GHADIRIAN
BORN IN IRAN IN 1974
LIVES IN TEHRAN, IRAN

“The photographs depict conscious choices made by these women; an act of rebellion, of subtlety, of changes foreseen.”

Ghadirian’s humorous pastiches set up encounters between different times and cultures: the European-influenced backdrop of a 19th-century Qajar-era Persian photographer is juxtaposed with contemporary studio props, “forbidden” or restricted objects ranging from a Pepsi can to a boom box. Made at a time in Iran when such activities as playing or listening to music in public, having parties, and wearing makeup were taboo, these photographs suggest tensions between tradition and modernity, restriction and freedom, public and private. One image portrays a young woman with the newspaper Hamshahri, a repeatedly banned publication that Ghadirian once worked for. In another, a mirror reflects foreign and banned books, an allusion to the censorship and compromised communication that limited experience in Iran in the 1990s.


Nermine Hammam, The Break, from the series “Cairo Year One: Upekkha,” 2011; Chromogenic print, 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.; Courtesy of Taymour Grahne

NERMINE HAMMAM
BORN IN EGYPT IN 1967
LIVES IN CAIRO AND LONDON

“I entered this traditionally male-dominated space, camera in hand, inverting conventional power relationships to ‘shoot’ the soldiers. Their response to my presence, as a woman, in their midst, has become part of the ‘facts’ documented in these images.”

“Cairo Year One” addresses the 18-day uprising in Egypt in January 2011 and its aftermath, recording its progression from innocence and idealism to brutalization and polarity. It consists of two parts: Upekkha (whose name references the Buddhist concept of equanimity) and Unfolding (a reference to the format of Japanese screens). In Upekkha Hammam imbeds photographs of soldiers she took in Tahrir Square during the uprising within the scenery of postcards from her personal collection. They become incongruous composites—at odds with the social upheaval while commenting on the fragility of military power and the media coverage of the event. Hammam created Unfolding after the uprising, when the hostility in the streets made it difficult for her to photograph… In de-contextualizing a
nd re-contextualizing existing photographs, Hammam explores questions of censorship and layered identities in her country in flux.


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; Photo © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

TANYA HABJOUQA
BORN IN JORDAN IN 1975
LIVES IN EAST JERUSALEM

Like all residents of the occupied territory of Gaza, women enjoy limited freedom. Taken throughout Gaza over a period of two months in 2009, Habjouqa’s images refute the chronic misrepresentation of the Middle East, especially its women. The photographs celebrate such modest pleasures as a picnic on the beach or an aerobics class… Connecting intimately with her subjects, Habjouqa gently portrays the bright side of their not-always-so-bright lives.


Shirin Neshat, Sara Khaki (Patriots), from the series “The Book of Kings,” 2012; Ink on laser-exposed silver gelatin print, 60 x 45 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; © Shirin Neshat

SHIRIN NESHAT
BORN IN IRAN IN 1957
LIVES IN NEW YORK CITY AND IRAN

The series “The Book of Kings” (2012) marks a return to black-and-white photography. It is composed of portraits of groups Neshat calls the Masses, the Patriots, and the Villains… The Patriots consist of six large waist-length portraits of four men and two women, holding their hands in front of their hearts in a universal gesture of feeling and conviction. The size of written characters across the print gets progressively smaller from the top to the bottom of the portrait. The verses are broken into columns, and the spaces between the columns create two parallel vertical lines on the figures’ faces; their eyes, free of calligraphy, confront the viewer… “The Book of Kings” reflects Neshat’s artistic development and evolution since her “Women of Allah” series. In this series, which is devoid of religious symbolism, she continues to pursue visible paradoxes of past and present, and power and submission, through a poetic choreography of portraiture and history.

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