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

Review

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

By John Zarobell February 17, 2015

Countless narrative threads run through this unprecedented exhibition. Most of the women photographers who are featured hail from the Middle East, and all engage with dynamics of contemporary Muslim culture, violence, and the region’s complicated relationship with Western ways of seeing (and thinking). The curators who assembled the exhibition clearly meant to highlight photography as a storytelling device; almost all of the works in the show are drawn from series.

The decision to focus on women photographers exposes a [Western] political subtext of presenting the world from a female perspective.  The politics involves the reversal of the gaze, the refutation of stereotypes, and the repudiation of Orientalism, that long-standing tradition of representation emerging from Europe that so often placed “exotic” women from “the East” in the position of objects to be consumed. This subtext introduces a curious paradox to the exhibition: these artists are not usually interested in telling stories that return the gaze of “the West” or correct false stereotypes. Certainly there are exceptions— Boushra Almutawakel offers correctives to the incursion of more restrictive veiling, while Shadi Ghadirian delivers send-ups of nineteenth-century Orientalist images of Middle Eastern women—but the overall message that emerges from this exhibition is not concerned with the perception of Middle Eastern women by Westerners or conservatives in their own countries. Instead the viewer encounters moments of experience and glimpses of protest in images that are sometimes staged and sometimes straight but always full of personal meaning.  

Gohar Dashti. Untitled #5 from the series Today’s Life and War, 2008; pigment print. Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center, Palo Alto. 

Take, for example, the series by Gohar Dashti titled Today’s Life and War (2008). The artist and a male counterpart pose in a series of contrived images that do not bring the war home in the tradition of Martha Rosler, but rather bring home to the war. Newlyweds pretend to drive off in a burned out car, light a candle on a birthday cake as they crouch behind a sandbag barricade, and share a frugal repast in the crosshairs of the barrel of a tank. In these images, the couple is dressed in modern [Western] clothing, though the artist’s hair is always covered, often in fashionable scarves. Born in 1980, Dashti is a daughter of the Iranian Revolution; I can certainly not claim to share any of her experiences, yet her visual language displays a mordant wit that could not be missed despite our cultural differences. The artist is not working against type, or even against discourse here, though the partial series of six images elaborates a stage of experience that I can plainly appreciate. Dashti presents a world permeated with the residue of war, and indeed the city where she lives, near the Iraqi border, has seen much conflict in her lifetime.  But this imagery is not about Iran’s war with Iraq or its conflicts with the United States, but about the lives people carve out despite the circumstances of their threatened existence. They are immensely poetic expressions of building a life in a world so full of destructive potential it has become inured to personal tragedies. 

Tanya Habjouqa. Untitled from the series Women of Gaza, 2009; pigment print. Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center, Palo Alto.   

Two artists’ series speak of contemporary life in occupied Palestine. Rula Halawani’s Negative Incursions (2002) takes as its subject the 2002 Israeli incursion into Palestine, where she found herself by accident. There she recorded with her camera the tragic landscapes of blasted buildings still occupied by a handful of forlorn souls and printed the photographs in negative, so the lights read as darks and vice versa.  This strategy has the effect of disorienting perceptions and forcing viewers’ minds to re-compose these pictures into a coherent image, while challenging them to find a narrative in the destruction so painfully evident. The exhibition also features a series by a younger artist, Tanya Habjouqa, Women of Gaza (2009). Her series depicts women in mostly simple moments of personal experience, whether in an aerobics class, riding a swing, or taking a cell-phone picture (with a pink camera). These images are neither heroic nor violent, and resist the narrative of victimization that so often accompanies stories of life in occupied Gaza. The world she presents may be incredibly limited by the military force of Israel, but one can find no evidence of that in this series. The politics of these works is a refusal to engage in politics and a desire to present women’s experiences as universal.

Not all the artists avoid the political. An older generation of artists, such as Shirin Neshat and Lalla Essaydi, demonstrate both a distinct aesthetic and a commitment to a political role for the artist. Neshat’s series of figures with Farsi writing across their bodies (1993-97) pays tribute to women writers engaged in the Iranian Revolution, which drove her own family from the country.  Triggered by her return to her homeland after more than a decade of absence, the series works to address buried Iranian histories of the twentieth century.  The images of writing across the body, originally appearing between 1993 and 1997, caused a sensation and have been widely adapted by a variety of artists for many purposes. Essaydi’s photograph Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) is the showstopper—a larger-than-life triptych of a recumbent woman whose body is covered in patterns that resemble writing and who reclines on a gold bed composed of shell casings. Both the backdrop and her jewelry are also created from resplendent metallic casings. It is hard to imagine how many bullets must have been fired to create this piece and, since Essaydi is from the relatively peaceful Morocco, one can imagine that this violence is more metaphorical than remembered. She appears to aim for a broader statement about how sensual images can reveal and hide a history of violence and destructive capacity, a clash not only of cultures and histories, but also of arms. Unlike the rest of the exhibition, this photograph does not so much tell a story as stops me in my tracks.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World is on view at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in Stanford, through May 4, 2015.

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