Taking its title from rawiya, the Arabic noun for a storyteller (feminine) and the eponymous name of an all-women photography collective in the Middle East, She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, organized by Kristen Gresh, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibits the photographs and, in two cases, the videos of twelve artists. (The title page for the catalogue includes rawiya in Arabic script just below the English She Who Tells a Story, and the exhibition, at least as it was installed in Pittsburgh, included the word in Arabic script as part of the wall text.)
Produced between the 1990s and 2012, the artworks in She Who Tells a Story range from photographic series likely familiar to contemporary art audiences in the United States—namely, Shirin Neshat’s iconic black-and-white photographs, Women of Allah (1993–97)—to works that have not previously been seen in a U.S. art museum, such as the candy-colored digital collages by Nermine Hammam. Catalogue entries divide the artists into two sections, “Constructing Identities” and “New Documentary.” The former links Boushra Almutawakel, Lalla Essaydi, Rania Matar, Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian, whose work Gresh identifies as responding to Orientalism (24), while the artists in the “New Documentary” section—Jananne Al-Ani, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, and Hammam—depict the everyday and engage “themes of war, occupation, protest, and revolt” (30). The catalogue is careful to situate the post-2000 photographs that comprise the majority of the exhibition within the history of photography in the Middle East since the nineteenth century (11–12; 22–24).
She Who Tells a Story’s participating artists are all women who grew up in, have parents from, or make their homes somewhere in the wide expanse of land between Morocco and Iran, a curatorial decision that suggests the omnipotence of gender and geography as organizing categories. This geography is shorthanded in the title as “Iran and the Arab World,” the latter term a reference to the Arab League’s twenty-two member states that also obscures the presence of non-Arab ethnic groups, such as North Africa’s linguistically and culturally diverse Amazigh (Berber) population. Art by artists living or working in North Africa, however, is largely absent from the exhibition; Moroccan-born Essaydi is the only artist who hails from a North African country west of Egypt, and she has lived most of her life in Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In her text “Stories We Thought We Knew,” Gresh explicitly acknowledges the difficulties of organizing an exhibition of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) art for U.S. audiences, and she addresses criticism of her decision to select photographers based on gender and geography. Gresh writes, “She Who Tells a Story . . . invites viewers inside and outside the Middle East to explore these new landscapes and to confront their own preconceptions. Though these photographers challenge stereotypes, the choice to unite them as a group has been seen by some, ironically, as confirming a stereotype” (21). Here, Gresh locates the value of the artworks in their capacity to challenge stereotypes about what it means to be or to live as a woman in the Middle East or North Africa, an interpretation that reappears in many of the individual catalogue entries. Admittedly, some of these photographers claim to question in their work the representation of the MENA region and the women who live therein. At the curatorial or critical level, however, this interpretation risks simultaneously overburdening the artist while also limiting the multiple openings or analyses her work generates in providing a service to a U.S. museum public presumed to be misinformed. The implication is that it is the responsibility of individual artists to correct systemic misunderstandings, stereotypes, and phobias held by people within the United States. Yet for many of the exhibition’s photographers, the United States is on the other side of the world, and well before the Executive Order of January 27, 2017, that attempted to impose a ninety-day suspension on entry to the United States by nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, it was largely inaccessible to them due to visa restrictions and travel costs [click here for the College Art Association’s official statement on the immigration ban]. Where She Who Tells a Story nonetheless succeeds is in providing its audiences with the necessary visual tools and critical language to rethink well-entrenched misrepresentations and oversimplifications of a region as diverse, dynamic, and important as the Middle East and North Africa. On a concrete level, the exhibition provided an opportunity for museum education departments to host programming aimed at catalyzing these urgent conversations (for example, the September 10, 2015, gallery conversation, “Arab and Iranian Women and Traditions in Contemporary Culture,” at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh).
The emphasis on geography places She Who Tells a Story within the growing investment by U.S. and European museums as well as galleries and auction houses in modern and contemporary art with some link to the MENA region. Recent U.S. examples of geographically themed group exhibitions include Memory, Place, Desire: Contemporary Art of the Maghreb and Maghrebi Diaspora (Haverford College, 2014) (click here for review), Here and Elsewhere (New Museum, 2014) (click here for review), Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015–16), and But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2016). The Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art created new research and curatorial positions in 2014 and 2015, respectively, for specialists in the region’s modern and contemporary art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, both had solo exhibitions of MENA artists open in 2016: Walid Raad (click here for review) and Basim Magdy (Raad’s exhibition also traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Museo Jumex in Mexico City). That these museums are attending to MENA art through acquisitions, exhibitions, hiring, programs, and publications is a welcome development, even if driven, as Gresh acknowledges in the opening lines of her essay, by a desire to respond to fifteen years of growing Islamophobia in the United States and Europe along with, more recently, the fallout that has followed the initial euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 (21).
At the same time that She Who Tells a Story participates in the institutionalization of modern and contemporary MENA art in the United States and Europe, it adopts an approach distinct from other group exhibitions in its focus on photography. The many standout artworks showcase the artists’ diverging approaches to the medium and the possibilities of representation it offers while bringing to the fore the intertwined problems of class, subjectivity, public and private space, power, and the everyday with a mix of imagination, humor, and directness. One example is Dashti’s staged photographs of a young straight-faced and presumably straight couple. Dominated by flat neutrals and dull greens, the deadpan images show the couple against backdrops of barbed wire, burnt-out cars, or scattered army helmets engaged in activities that vary from the banal hanging of laundry to what should be festive moments, such as their wedding, or Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Halawani, meanwhile, grapples with the aesthetic, personal, and ethical challenges faced by those photographing war and violence in Palestine. Taken during the March 2002 Israeli offensive in the West Bank, Negative Incursions (2002) was Halawani’s first project after leaving a career in photojournalism. She prints her large (35” x 49”) black-and-white images as photographic negatives, surrounding them with a wide, black border—a direct reference, Gresh notes, to television screens and the representation of Palestine in international media (120). Because the reversal of the photographs’ lights and darks inverts the legibility of the works’ depth and surface, Halawani’s photographs solicit a slow and careful looking, one that withholds an immediate grasping of their subject and that resists the quick scrolling through digital images that increasingly characterize image consumption in the twenty-first century.
Significantly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquired works by many of the exhibiting artists in 2013, the year that She Who Tells a Story opened there. These acquisitions suggest that the important conversations initiated by She Who Tells a Story will continue through future exhibitions, research, and public programs. Such exhibitions and research will, I hope, provide an occasion to contextualize these photographs in ways that expand their interpretation beyond the frames of gender and geography. Habjouqa’s Women of Gaza (2009) and El Nemr’s The Metro (2003), for example, would benefit from an analysis of what they communicate about class as much as of how they depict the articulation of gender in public space. Similarly, it would be worthwhile to consider Ghadirian’s Qajar series (1998) alongside other contemporary artists’ investigations of the kinds of self-making and dehumanization facilitated by portraiture and early studio photography (one thinks of Kehinde Wiley’s riffs on Baroque painted portraits or Pushpamala N.’s restaging of ethnographic studio photography in colonial India).
She Who Tells a Story should be commended for bringing a substantial body of work by these twelve women into U.S. museum galleries and collections and for encouraging debates, from those held during the exhibition to those in the future, in writing the history of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. In so doing, She Who Tells a Story contributes an important chapter to this history, one that centers on the rich conceptual, formal, and political engagements of these photographers and that testifies to their many ways of picturing the world.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
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