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She Who Tells a Story

Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. 8 April - 31 July 2016, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. Organized by MFA Boston, curator: Kristen Gresh.
Apr 2016

Exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., 8 April - 31 July 2016. Organized by MFA Boston, where it was previously shown. Extracts from the press information:

She Who Tells a Story features the pioneering work of twelve leading women photographers from Iran and the Arab world: Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian.

As the Middle East has undergone unparalleled change over the past twenty years, and national and personal identities have been dismantled and rebuilt, these artists have tackled the very notion of representation with passion and power. Their provocative images, which range in style from photojournalism to staged and manipulated visions, explore themes of gender stereotypes, war and peace, and personal life, all the while confronting nostalgic Western notions about women of the Orient and exploring the complex political and social landscapes of their home regions.

"Reflecting on the power of politics and the legacy of war, the photographs in this exhibition challenge Western notions about the 'Orient,' examine the complexities of identity, and redefine documentary as a genre," said curator Kristen Gresh (MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs), who was first exposed to this work while living abroad for 15 years, teaching history of photography in Paris and Cairo.

The exhibition features approximately 100 photographs and two videos, created almost entirely within the last decade.

Among the earliest photographs are four portraits from Shirin Neshat's series Untitled (1996), Speechless (1996), I Am Its Secret (1993) and Identified (1995). The series marked a turning point in the recent history of representation and debates about the veil, inspiring exploration by other photographers.

In addition to Neshat, others have had an impact on the history of visual representation and the perception of Orientalist stereotypes. In the diptych Untitled I & II (1996) Iraqi-born Jananne Al-Ani uses the women in her family (and herself) to show a progression in veiling, from unveiled to fully veiled, and back again. In Bullets Revisited #3 by Lalla Essaydi, who uses iconography from 19th-century Orientalist paintings as inspiration to explore and question her own cultural identity, silver and golden bullet casings evoke symbolic violence, referencing her fear about growing restrictions on women in a new, post-revolutionary era that followed demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that began in 2010.

Eight images from Shirin Neshat's series Book of Kings (2012) will also be on view in the exhibition. The figures in this series stand for the thousands that participated in protests, particularly the Iranian Green Movement (2009) and the Arab Spring (2011).

Like Neshat’s and Al-Ani’s work from the 1990s, the iconic series Qajar (1998) by Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian was a point of departure for many photographers of the time. Ghadirian’s early staged portraits laid the foundation for later photographers to address the subject of identity, including Boushra Almutawakel, a native of Yemen. Almutawakel offers a sensitive perspective on the public and private lives of young women, as does Lebanese-born Rania Matar in her series A Girl and Her Room (2009, 2010).

Identity is further investigated in the work of photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, who currently lives in Tehran and whose recent photos of the Iranian elections appeared in publications from The New York Times to Time magazine. After experiencing difficulty photographing in public in 2009, she turned to fine art photography to address social issues.

She Who Tells a Story also presents a new kind of documentary, artistic imagination brought to real-life experiences. Just as Shadi Ghadirian’s Nil, Nil recounted stories of war, Iranian Gohar Dashti’s work also tackles the subject. Both photographers grew up during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Dashti’s Today’s Life and War (2008) is a series of theatrical, staged photographs in which a couple pursues ordinary activities in a fictionalized battlefield.

Alternatives to Dashti’s staged documentaries can be found in the works of Egyptian Rana El Nemr and Jordanian Tanya Habjouqa, both of whom directly capture people in urban settings.

Another area of exploration for Middle Eastern photographers is the medium itself. Jananne Al-Ani, Rula Halawani, and Nermine Hammam push the boundaries of photography in new ways. Al-Ani’s works Aerial I and Shadow Sites II, a single channel video, depict the Jordanian landscape from an airplane. Rula Halawani, a native of Palestine who currently resides in East Jerusalem, addresses the experience of destruction and displacement.

Nermine Hammam’s Cairo Year One (2011-12), addressing the 18-day uprising in Egypt (January 2011) and its aftermath, also experiments with uses of photography. It consists of 13 prints in two parts: Upekkha (reference to Buddhist concept of equanimity) and Unfolding (reference to folding Japanese screens).

Accompanying the exhibition, the 176-page book She Who Tells a Story (MFA Publications, September 2013) features essays by curator Kristen Gresh, and Michket Krifa (independent curator and art critic of African and Middle Eastern photography), including more than 100 reproductions.


(Summarized from press information)

© Photos: Courtesy of the artists and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see the respective photo pages)

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

8 April - 31 July 2016

National Museum of Women in the Arts

1250 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005

Organized by:
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
where it was shown
27 August 2013 - 12 January 2014

Curator: Kristen Gresh

Jananne Al-Ani
Boushra Almutawakel
Gohar Dashti
Rana El Nemr
Lalla Essaydi
Shadi Ghadirian
Tanya Habjouqa
Rula Halawani
Nermine Hammam
Rania Matar
Shirin Neshat
Newsha Tavakolian

She Who Tells a Story
MFA Publications, Sept. 2013
Features essays by Kristen Gresh, and Michket Krifa, including more than 100 reproductions.
ISBN: 978-0-87846-804-1

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While revealing the many possibilities of seeing the city (Cairo), she raises profound questions about the very practice of photography itself.
The Yemeni photographer challenges stereotypes, searching for alternative discourses.
Wives of the Syrian Revolution. Interview about her series of photographs, 2012-2013.
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