“As I was putting this exhibition together, one prominent Iranian artist warned me that focusing on a group of women photographers was ‘alarming’ because it would confirm the stereotype of Arab and Iranian women as ‘oppressed and powerless.’ On the contrary, the works on view do just the opposite—they challenge that viewpoint, beckoning us to confront our own preconceptions and to explore new cultural landscapes.”She Who Tells a Story: Photographers from the Iran and Arab World, “From the Curator,” Kristen Gresh
Although the global West can display a confused notion of female Muslim identity, this controversial exhibition previously at the Carnegie Museum of Art alternatively provokes and encourages serious thought and esteem through the critical selection of work and keen curatorial framework. The works by twelve photographers loomed large and reverently in the tremendous Heinz Galleries, inciting instant awe for this strong collection. Starting with the welcoming wall-sized reproduction of one of Gohar Dashti’s (b. Iran 1980, lives in Iran) series, Today’s Life and War (2008), reeled viewers in from the bottom of the steps, appearing to be a happy-go-lucky newlywed couple in a convertible. Proceeding to the top of the stairs, the image background comes into focus. A vast dry land with sparse plants, the broken top of their car, and tanks in the background invite viewers into the charged perspectives of the exhibition.
Strength and reverence reverberates in images of women in upright poses with weighty stares, beginning with Shirin Neshat’s (b. 1957 Iran, lives in New York) Roja (Patriots) (2012). From her Book of Kings series, a photograph shows a woman looking out with a hand on her heart. Iranian poetry is inscribed with ink on the grayscale gelatin print. The empowering straight pose and active gaze challenges dominating images of Iranian women covered and seemingly subdued in Western media.
This power is echoed in Newsha Tavakolian’s (b. 1981 Iran, lives in Iran) series, Listen (2010), six square inkjet prints picturing Iranian professional women singers in imaginary album covers in public environments. The erect poses evoke a strong yet stark message as the women are forbidden to record or perform in public.
Resilient confrontation was apparent throughout several works. Lalla Essaydi’s (b. Morocco, 1956, lives in New York) Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), shows a woman laying down in a sea of shiny bullets, a provocative dichotomy. Another stimulating coupling of ideas is revealed in Shadi Ghadirian’s (b. Iran, 1974, lives in Iran) Qajar series (1998) shows contemporary Iran women in a “European influenced backdrop of a nineteenth century Qajar-era Persian photographer …juxtaposed with contemporary studio props.” A subtle but powerful revelation comes through in Boushra Almutawakel’s (b. Yemen 1969, lives in Yemen and Paris) Mother, Daughter, Doll series (2010), showing a smiling, colorfully dressed woman and child becoming somber and covered in black throughout the nine inkjet prints.
Rania Matar’s (b. Lebanon, 1964, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts) A Girl and Her Room series (2009-2010), picturing young women in their bedrooms, with a more obvious vulnerability. Christilla, Rabeih Lebanon (2010), demonstrates the heavy complexity of gender and spatial inscription as a young woman sits sideways in a chair in a neon-pink painted room, wearing shorts and cropped-top, with an intense stare directed at the viewer, one arm dangling down. Modern technologies (television, DVDs) and feminine items (bras, high heels) surround her. The woman is not so dissimilar from teenagers in America. Poignantly, on the wall behind her is a poster image of American actress Marilyn Monroe. Monroe, lying comfortably in white sheets, has an inviting, sensuous look contrasting the teen’s defiant expression. The sitting-posed, interior narrative is a stultifying contrast to the exterior, standing scenes of much of the exhibition.
Tanya Habjouqa’s (b. 1978 Jordan, lives in Jerusalem) series, Women of Gaza (2009) emits a colorful and positive, action-oriented aura. In one, young girls are shown enjoying a motorboat ride; in another, a young woman in pink glides high in the sky on a swing; and in a third, viewers see a clear smile on the face of a young woman holding a pink camera, photographing the viewers, flipping the gaze once again.
The exhibition demonstrates diversity in approach and subject matter, from women shown enjoying a blissful moment, to women suffering destruction and displacement as in the intense series by Rula Halawani (b. Palestine, 1964, lives in Jerusalem), Negative Incursions (2002). As such, the grouping was curious; with so many apparent critical distinctions, why was it assembled by artist, instead of exploratory theme? Were there any further perspectives audiences could be informed by? One exciting aspect of the curating was the interactive note-board, where viewers could pose questions or comments. Browsing the notes was an act of inquiry, prompting further reflection. The curatorial context throughout was ample and inviting, including a map of the artists’ residences, a curator’s statement, and an exhibition statement, each art label offers a background of the artist and the work, as well as a comment from the artist with personal insight. Such contexts further ignite ways to understand, experience and appreciate these works.
As Gresh also points out in the curator’s note, there are points of universal contention. Wandering through surrounding Carnegie’s galleries with the exhibition in mind, another level of criticality is evident; a concurrent exhibition of a selection by the artists or curators could have deepened such an inquiry.
As it is, this exhibition proved compelling with distinct subject matter, a vast range of perspective and artistic approach, as well as agreeable exhibition context and breathable display, allowing the art to shine individually and enrich audiences altogether. Even in the traditional “white box setting,” which can sometimes emit a privileged perspective, Gresh’s aim was achieved. The exhibit worked as an artistic challenge against Western confusion, and encourages critical and respectful thought regarding the contemporary Muslim women’s experience and artistic perspectives, as viewers leave the galleries and re-enter the world.
Sally Deskins is the founder of Les Femmes Folles is a completely volunteer run organization founded with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art; originally inspired by artist Wanda Ewing and her curated exhibit by the name Les Femmes Folles (Wild Women). Femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com