With a surge in horrific terrorist acts to blame for the increasingly xenophobic atmosphere across the world, the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ latest exhibition, She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, could not have come at a better time. Opening on April 8th, the exhibition aims to challenge common misconceptions and stereotypes held about Middle Eastern women. Above all, however, the primary intent of She Who Tells a Story is not to dispel notions about religious extremism, but simply to open up the Western perspective on cultures in the East.
Composed of over 80 works from 12 artists, She Who Tells a Story is thoughtfully arranged into two categories: Deconstructing Orientalism and Constructing Identities, and New Documentary. In the first category, the artists challenge Orientalism—or the way in which Westerners scrutinize and depict Eastern cultures, which often perpetuate hurtful stereotypes—while also attempting to convey more telling impressions of their true identities.
Upon entering the gallery space, visitors are greeted with portraits from Newsha Tavakolian’s moving series, “Listen.” With these portraits, Tavakolian speaks volumes about Iran’s censorship policies that prohibit female vocalists from performing in front of the opposite gender. Here, she has captured six demurely-clothed Iranian singers against a disparate backdrop of glitzy sequins. Though they are expressively caught mid-song, all six of them have their eyes closed. The companion video, Listen, hangs directly across from the photographs and again shows the affecting women singing, yet the video is utterly silent. As living representations of muted voices, Tavakolian’s vocalists are exceptionally moving and an excellent start to the exhibition.
Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi’s Bullet Revisited #3 also stands out in Deconstructing Orientalism. Made up of three prints, Bullet Revisited shows a sprawling woman—a reference to the odalisque, or Turkish concubine—surrounded by elaborately beaded fabrics and a gleaming backdrop. From a distance, the work fits right into a fashion editorial, but on closer inspection, viewers realize the dazzling background is comprised of polished bullet-casings. As the subject herself is hennaed in calligraphy—a male-dominated art, this piece is not just a thought-provoking statement on the norms of beauty, but on gender roles as well.
Another profound series comes from Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s “Mother, Daughter, Doll,” in which the photographer illustrates the pervasive shift in religious extremism through the progression of veils worn by the subjects. Initially, the trio—doll, included—are clothed modestly but brightly. Yet, each subsequent work of the nine-piece series shows them increasingly covered in restrictive black veils and fading into the black background. By the final piece of the alarming series, the three are no longer visible.
In New Documentary, the narrative form again helps construct new perceptions of females in the East. In her carefully staged series, “Today’s Life and War,” Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti portrays how military presence has seeped into commonplace aspects of life. In Untitled #4, a couple are casually breakfasting while a war tank looms directly behind them. Untitled #7 shows the same couple picnicking for Nowrooz, or Persian New Year, surrounded by a slew of discarded soldiers’ helmets. Juxtaposing routine, everyday acts with stark reminders of war allows Ghadirian to show that violence is normalized in many parts of the East. Still, these muted images are all infused with pops of color, signifying the strength and sense of hope that resounds in these war-ravaged areas.
Also in New Documentary is Israeli photographer Rula Halawani’s “Negative Incursions,” which further reflects the disorder of living in a tumultuous and often bloody setting. The prints in this disorienting series are blown-up, oversized negatives with blurred details and anonymous faces. In Untitled VI, Halawani draws viewers straight to the action by capturing soldiers recoiling on the ground as a military tank hovers threateningly, while in Untitled I, the tank dominates over the viewer. With her prints, Halawani succeeds in channeling the fear and turmoil of her own experiences while living in troubled East Jerusalem into haunting images that are sure to strike a chord even outside of the Middle East.
On view until July 31, 2016, She Who Tells a Story is resplendent with moving images that help reconstruct the perceived identities of women in the East. For a further enriched experience, visitors can attend one of the many events hosted at the museum until July, like Artists in Conversation, featuring Rania Matar on June 10th, and Boushra Almutawakel and Tanya Habjouqa on July 27th. Short lunchtime talks with museum staff will also take place on specific Wednesdays throughout the exhibition’s duration. For more details on these events and more, visit the museum’s calendar.
She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
The National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Avenue NW
Through July 31, 2016
Bullets Revisited #3
Medium: Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum
Dimensions: 150 x 66 in.
Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC
Maral Afsharian, from the series “Listen”
Medium: Pigment print
Dimensions: 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.
Credit: Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery
Untitled #1, from the series “Today’s Life and War”
Medium: Chromogenic print
Dimensions: 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.
Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Azita Bina, and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston; © Zohar Dashti
Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions”
Medium: Chromogenic print
Dimensions: 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.
Credit: © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery
Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza”
Medium: Pigment print
Dimensions: 20 x 30 in.
Credit: 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