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She Who Tells A Story @ Cantor Arts Center

Boushra Almutawakel (detail): Mother, Daughter, Doll series (1), 2010


This exhibition, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, brings us the work of 12 woman photographers who are either from Iran or the Arab world, the distinction being that Farsi is the primary language spoken in Iran, whereas Arabic is the language that is spoken in the five other countries from which the other artists hail.  There is a lot of diversity to be found in this grouping of 79 photographs, even as most of it is difficult to encapsulate.  But the various notions of  “story” around which this exhibition coheres all beg a single question: who is the intended audience for these visual narrations? 

Shadi Ghadirian Untitled, from Qujar series, 1998

At first blush, it might seem that the answer would exclude a white male American such as myself, but it may also be possible that these stories are actually intended to address people like me, perhaps redefined as “subconscious practitioners of Orientalist prejudice, “ or “would-be colonists.”  More broadly speaking, the target might also be the imperializing gaze of all photographic image-making, in that a great many works included here feature unsmiling faces that look directly at, and, in some cases, confrontationally into the camera, as if to face an unwelcome accuser. These faces usually conceal as much as they reveal, but they make clear that they have no interest in ingratiating themselves as “subjects.”

I may be missing some of the finer points (like the attitudinal codes embedded in a woman’s choice about whether to wear, say, a burka, hajib or a niqab), and thus, any leap of imagination that I might enact to overcome this fact would be an invitation to questionable cultural presumptions.  That said, it is still clear that the photographers are showing their subjects in a light that is very different from the one mass media use to represent Islamic women as powerless victims of their own patriarchal culture.  No doubt, for some, the stories we hear of extreme and abusive regulation and punishment are true, a real part of their daily lives. For others who live in relative privilege, as is sometimes the case here, the stereotypes are not so true.  So even though the women pictured in this exhibition live in the tension-filled spaces between deep-seated tradition and the potential of emerging modernity, the characteristic that comes across most strongly in these pictures is that of strength and individuality.
It jumps out from within a repeated visual trope: that of veiling in its various forms. Yemini photographer Boushra Almutawakel does the most with it in her series of nine images collectively titled Women, Daughters and Dolls (2010).  They’re portraits of women with preteen daughters on their laps, who in turn have dolls on their laps.  In them, looking left to right, we see different practices of facial and bodily concealment.  They range from partial (the hajib, which covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear) to total (the burqa, which covers a woman’s body from head-to-toe), to five other intermittent steps, indicating a gradated 
Rania Matar, Christilla, Rebiah, Lebanon, 2010
taxonomy of attitudes toward the traditional Islamic practice of veiling.  Egyptian photographer Rana El Memr makes cooly composed street photography, or to be more precise, understreet photography in that she finds her subjects in subway trains and subway stations.  Again, we see veiling set in contrast to the modernity of public transportation, a display of attitudes identifiable by the degree to which the wearers’ faces and bodies are revealed or concealed.  Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian also opts for the confrontational look, and in her images, which may or may not be self-portraits, the subject stands at center of the frame like an absurd guardian figure, embellished with Farsi-calligraphy superimposed on the images’ surfaces.
Shadi Ghadirian, Nil, Nil #11, 2008

Lebanese photographer Rania Matar is one of the two most interesting photographers in the exhibition.  Her images feature young women who have given themselves over to western modes of scanty dress, almost all of whom look away from the camera, out in space as if they were daydreaming.  What makes them compelling is that the environments in which the subjects are placed tell complex stories about a “freedom” that is little more than an inundation of youth culture that is now a global phenomenon.  Yet, their wistful looks betray an easy identification with that culture, which is to say that it is almost as if these young women are looking back on a previous condition of relative constraint with some amount of nostalgia.   My other favorite photographer in the exhibition, Shadi Ghadirian, works in what could be called still-life photography.  Her images are feasts for the eye, but they always have a disquieting moment when you realize that something is out of place.  For example, in one image of a bowl of fruit, we see a hand grenade alongside apples, oranges and grapes. In another we see a woman’s handbag full of cosmetics and whatnots interspersed with high-caliber machine gun ammunition.

Apart from representations of bodily concealment and/or revelation, the other pervasive theme in the exhibition is the omnipresence of war. Nermine Hammam, an Egyptian artist, does some interesting things by Photoshoping young soldiers into fantasy landscapes full of candy-colored mountains and flowers.   Rula Halawani, a Palestinian, captures the truly frightening aspects of military conflict.  Her images, stark solarizations of streets turned to rubble by tanks, often show what appear to be corpses strewn about.  For viewers, this is clearly the stuff of nightmares, received at a distance via sanitized news broadcasts.  By contrast, for the millions actually living inside those nightmares, the details of Halawani’s pictures are incontrovertible facts, a universe apart from the other, more peaceful one in which some women enjoy the relative luxury of deciding how or whether to cover their head when walking outdoors. 
“She Who Tells A Story:  Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” @ Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, through May 4, 2015.  The show travels to the Carnegie Museum of ArtMay 30 to September 28, 2015. Other artists included are: Jananne Al-Ani, Gohar Dashti, Tanya Habjouqa. Lalla Essaydi and Shirin Neshat. 
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

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