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She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World

posted on: Jun 24, 2016

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World

BY: Clara Ana Ruplinger/Contributing Writer

This summer, Washington’s National Museum of women in the arts is displaying She Who Tells a Story, or in Arabic, Rawiya (راوية), which brings together art from 12 women photographers from Iran and the Arab world. The series is as groundbreaking as it is breathtaking.

It is an intimate, sometimes intimidating look into the lives of women so often used as political fodder. It showcases themes of resistance, revolt, the impact of war, and orientalism.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) by Lalla Essaydi

In the haunting work Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) by Lalla Essaydi, an Arab woman lays on a bed, long hair flowing over the edge, looking beautiful and mystical. It is purposely styled in the form of Orientalist art (art by Westerners depicting, often romantically, Arab women). This picture has all the normal features of such work, including: intense gaze, beautiful face, long black hair, and ornamentation. But once you step closer, things begin to change. Her body is covered, head to two with henna Arabic script, the meaning indiscernible to foreign eyes. And that ornamentation, so beautiful from a distance, turns out to be thousands of tiny, strategically placed bullet casings. She is literally lying on a bed of bullets. She wears them around her neck, her waist. The viewer must step back and think, “How have Western Orientalist fantasies created the world she lives in?”

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
From the series Qajar (1998) by Shadi Gadirian

 

In Qajar (1998) by Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian, the focus is shared between women’s traditional clothing and modern objects forbidden in Iran at the time of the photography session. One woman sips a Pepsi can, while another holds a boom box. In another, two completely veiled women hold a mirror, revealing a collection of banned Western books on their wall. At the intersection of cultures, these images hold a kind of defiance to both the West (through their veil) and the edicts of their restrictive government (through the items they hold). They do not let either of these entities define their identities.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Negative Incursions (2002) by Rula Halawani

Negative Incursions (2002) by Rula Halawani, a native Palestinian residing in East Jordan, reflects on the 2002 Israeli invasion of the West Bank. These images of grieving mothers and destroyed homes are rendered in the negative. At once they become more intense, and more alien. The destruction depicted in the photos are devastating.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Women of Gaza (2009) by Tanya Habjouga

In the series, Women of Gaza (2009) by Tanya Habjouga, the photographer shows a group of Palestinian girls on a school boat. With white hijabs framing smiling faces, these girls seem carefree. The photo’s description said these girls are unable to go any further than six nautical miles before they enter Israel’s restricted area. The picture portrays joy and resistance in the face of an overwhelming history of tragedy and oppression.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Listen (2010) by Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian, an Iranian, portrays complex emotions and themes in her series Listen (2010). This series depicts six women who are professional singers in Iran that are forbidden from singing in public or recording albums. Caught mid song, the portraits of these women are full of passion, depth, and intensity. Across the room, these same women can be seen singing in a video, but with one cache: the audio is muted. The silence reflects how these women’s voices have been taken away; yet as a viewer, one can see how they yearn to be heard.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Upekkha (2011) by Nermine Hammam

An Egyptian artist, Hammam, addresses the 18-day uprising during Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring in her series Upekkha and Unfolding. In Upekkha, Hammam photographs the soldiers in Tahrir square, and imposes them onto peaceful landscapes from postcards. The photographer wanted to capture the innocence of these soldiers. In Unfolding, the photographer captures the aftermath of the uprising, combining pictures of police brutality with Japanese screens. These images and their contrast make the viewer wonder, “How can such innocence become such brutality?”

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
A Girl and Her Room (2009-2012) by Rania Mater

Rania Mater, of Lebanese descent, constructed a series called A Girl and Her Room (2009-2012). These photographs show Arab women sitting in their rooms. This series is significant in that it shows the pure diversity of these women. Each piece exposes unique personality and life experiences. From bright pink walls and Marilyn Monroe portraits, to a Palestinian girl sitting on a humble mat bed, these girls could not live in more different places. Yet, there is a quality of unity to this work. The portrayed women are connected through their coming of age, through their history, and through the frame of the camera.

She Who Tells a Story was as emotional as it was impactful, and there were many more pieces and artists capturing the attention of viewers, including, Boushra Almutawakel, Shirin Neshat, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr and Jananne Al-Ani. Every piece of art was full of insight and meaning that contributes to a fuller understanding of women in the Arab world and Iran.