The bottle blonde teenager in tiny shorts and tank top is draped across a chair, staring cat-like at the camera. Her painted pink nails match the hot rose wall behind, upon which looms an outsized print of Marilyn Monroe luxuriating in white sheets. A pink bra hangs off the closet door; gilt sandals and high heels spread around the floor contrast with clunky green crocs and a TV console stacked with DVDs like The Pursuit of Happiness and a cherub-festooned box.
But this isn’t Beverly Hills or the suburbs of Boston.
The images of young women in their private spaces confront preconceptions the viewer might have about what it feels like to be a girl in a part of the Middle East — more associated with violent conflict and heavily-covered women than ordinary adolescents coming to terms with their own bodies, sexuality and emerging identities.
Matar’s arresting coming of age studies feature in She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. The exhibition of 12 acclaimed female artists, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is now showing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
“People often don’t believe Christilla is in Lebanon — it throws people off,” Matar, who moved to the U.S. when she was 20, tells Women in the World. “But this is really part of the Lebanon that I know. It’s a melting pot of religions and cultures within the same country. And it was interesting for me to pass that on.
“People in the West often want to see images that are about women and oppression and the veil. A lot of the photographic work caters to that but it’s not always the reality. On the ground there’s a whole other side to it. Behind the scenes people are just people.”
Matar found that “other side” when she decided to enlarge her project of shooting her adolescent daughters and their friends in their bedrooms in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she lives with her four children, to the Lebanon of her youth and extended family. She came up with the idea while running summer photography courses for children in Palestinian refugee camps in the suburbs of Beirut. “We live in the U.S. and a lot of the news about the Middle East is very negative,” says Matar who has recently published a new book of cross-cultural photographs of pre-teen girls in America and the ‘East’ called L’enfant-femme.
“It’s very much about them and us, and terrorism, except people are just the same.
“There is something so universal about being a teenage girl even in a Palestinian refugee camp or in a wealthy suburb of Boston. These are girls who are starting to grow up and work out for themselves what it means being adult, expressing themselves with their own identity. The results could be different yet they are going through the same transformation.”
The subjects of Matar’s work, selected for She Who Tells a Story (which comes from the Arabic rawiya), include Alia from Beirut, also of the wild pink-colored bedroom; Reem from Doha, Lebanon — a fashion design student on leave from London, who lies in a transparent white blouse across her bed, near a copy of Lolita; Stephanie, sporting dark wraparound sunglasses and a miniskirt and pink singlet as she sits against her teddy-bear covered bed; Maryam from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; and Bisan surrounded by personal care products and a small circular cut-out of the Palestinian flag in her intimate space at a refugee settlement in Bethlehem (Matar spent time photographing girls on the West Bank).
“They didn’t take much convincing – a lot of the girls were having fun and they understood the project in so many ways. They weren’t directly connected to me, so our relationship was unbiased and based on me being their photographer, and in no way associated with their mothers.
“They’re pretty self-centered at that age wherever you look at girls in this country or there [in the Middle East].”
The series also included veiled teens who could not remove their head and body coverings for the photo sessions conducted in their own bedrooms, because they knew their images would be shown publicly.
For the current She Who Tells a Story exhibition, curated by Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Kristen Gresh, only Matar’s photographs of girls without the hijab were chosen — challenging stereotypes about what a Christian or Muslim should look like. “Some of the girls are Christian, some are Muslim and some Druze,” Matar explains. “In several photos you don’t think the girl should be Muslim, but she is. I don’t mention their religion because to me it’s not about religion. I believe it’s important to explore the layers of the Middle East that people don’t quite know.”
The veil as symbol of women’s oppression or an ambiguous sign of cultural defiance comes in for multiple interpretations and deconstruction in this wide-ranging survey, profiling of some of the best photographic work from an area where women are at the forefront of their field.
The 12 artists — who frequently play with “Orientalist” clichés about the exotic East, dating from 18th and 19th century Western colonialism — are Matar; Tehran-born and based Shadi Ghadirian; Lalla Essaydi, from Morocco, based in New York; Boushra Almutawakel, who lives in Sana’a in Yemen, and Paris; Shirin Neshat who has been in the US since before the Iranian revolution; Tehran’s Newsha Tavakolian; Gohar Dashti also from Iran; Rana El Nemr born in Germany, living in Cairo; Tanya Habjouqa a Jordanian-born, American photographer living in East Jerusalem; East Jerusalem’s Rula Halawani; Cairo and London-based Nermine Hamman; and Jannane Al-Ani born in Kirkuk, Iraq now living in London.
“Curators who work in this region with contemporary artists have taken note that the most exciting, compelling innovative photo-based art is being created by women,” Kathryn Wat, chief curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts tells Women in the World.
“Unlike painting and sculpture, where women were trying for centuries to play catch-up because they didn’t have the same opportunities to study and train as men, women have been involved in photography and its development since the beginning of the 19th century and they have always been on an equal footing.”
One woman photographer unafraid to tackle taboos surrounding the rising pressure on women in the Arab world to wear full face veils and body-covering niqabs, is award-winning Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel. She offers a celebrated critique of Islamist extremists with her “Mother, Daughter, Doll” series. Nine photographs showing the artist with her eldest daughter and doll illustrate the progression of the smiling subjects from the mother wearing a simple colorful headscarf and her daughter without head-covering, towards increasingly more conservative darker garb, and matching grim expressions. Eventually the little girl also dons the most severe head and body-covering until finally the three become invisible and disappear from the final, purely black tableau.
Yet the photographer herself, who wears a headscarf in Yemen says the hijab can be “advantageous and empowering in some ways as it protects and privatizes the woman’s body,” and one of Almutawakel’s more controversial images in She Who Tells a Story displays a woman in a headscarf constructed from the American flag.
“The artists know that Westerners are obsessed with the veil and they want to understand the veil, but they also know they have a very monolithic view of the veil, what it means and what the experience is like,” says Wat.
Veiled women are showcased in Shadi Ghadirian’s mocking portraits of traditional and contemporary repression and liberation. Her “Qajar” series places women in conservative Islamic dress against 19th century backdrops but gives them forbidden items to hold such as soda cans, boomboxes, or a censored newspaper.
Still, Ghadirian herself embraces hijab-wearing and notions of women’s submission to religious and political precepts do not exclusively shape the works of the four Iranian photographers and eight “Arab world” photographers selected for the exhibition.
“In many cases these artists are dealing with tough subjects — war, gender, and the problems that come with gender — and yet I don’t think they or their works are defined by any sense of oppression,” Wat explains.
“They are defined by their creativity and the way they confront these issues. They explore them in really unique ways and their works are aesthetically pleasing on top of it.”
Beauty, and artistic reflections on the disappointments and dangers of revolution — from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the aborted Green Revolution in Tehran in 2009 and the disillusionment and conflict that has followed the 2011 Arab Spring — stand out in this show which first opened in Boston before moving to the American national capital.
Lalla Essaydi combines aesthetics and politics in her alluring triptych ‘Bullets revisted #3’. The artist is, Wat notes, a “director” who casts a model then designs the set on which the model will be placed.
Taking a classic ‘Orientalist’ odalisque or concubine’s painting pose, showing her model covered in henna calligraphy reclining seductively on a bed, Essaydi then turns tradition on its head, in a disturbing commentary on pre and post-Arab Spring threats to women.
“People often say this is beautiful and they love it because it has this glittering luxury feel to it from the gleaming metal, but in fact all of the metal pieces are cut and polished bullet casings,” Wat says. “As Essaydi says ‘beauty is dangerous because it makes you believe the fantasy.’ She is creating something very deliberately alluring, drawing us in and pushing us away with the reality of violence which is a constant threat in areas of conflict.”
That violence is visited on women in multiple pernicious ways, such as Iran’s invocation of Islamic laws to ban women professional singers performing in public
Newsha Tavakolian, the award-winning Tehran photographer and regime critic, contributes some of the most haunting images in the show with her “Listen” series. Still photographs and videos show some of these silenced women in the act of singing, eyes closed, imagining themselves on stage – but even the videos are soundless, a metaphor for the lives of these women deprived of their voices. Tavakolian has also imagined and designed CD covers for the artists who don’t have the right to record or distribute their music.
Shirin Neshat, filled with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Iran, and inspired by the Green movement of youth for reform, harks back to the 10th century Persian epic poem the Book of Kings. Photographs of ‘Patriots’, hand on their hearts, are covered in Farsi calligraphy from the revered historical text. “She went back to Iran once [after the revolution] around 1990 and was shocked by how much the country had changed. For her it was as if the world had gone black and white so her photography has black and white tonality,” Wat says.
The more recent Iranian past and her childhood growing up in the eight-year war with Iraq serves as the inspiration and backdrop for Gohar Dashti’s “Today’s Life and War,” staged explorations of ordinary people living their lives despite the army tanks and sandbags — hanging washing, celebrating a wedding, or a birthday party.
Amid the Israeli incursion in Gaza in 2009, Tanya Habjouqa photographed the everyday lives and small joys of people carrying on despite conflict. “Women of Gaza,” shot as the world’s attention was on Hamas’ restrictions on women and the pressure to wear ever-more obscuring veils, are seen in an aerobics class, or joining their family for a beachside picnic on the Mediterranean.
The military presence is inescapable in Nermine Hamman’s provocative melding of photographs of soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with chintzy postcards or colorful rural scenes, in a seeming play on the 18-day “revolution” and how it became more a tourist attraction than a force for lasting change. For Palestinian photojournalist Rula Halawani, there is no picture postcard false gaiety to her studies of armed conflict in East Jerusalem. “Negative Incursions,” shot in 2002 during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in Ramallah, offer a glimpse of the urban battle-field seen through a “night vision camera.” Halawani took the decision not to reverse the negative and positive values when she was enlarged the prints — accentuating the strangeness and lunar, other-worldly quality to the dramatic events after the second intifada.
In the view of She Who Tells a Story curator Gresh, Halawani “powerfully addresses the experience of destruction and displacement, as well as the nature of photographic media,” by departing from her earlier, more traditional documentary photography methods.
More broadly, the landmark exhibition offers a prism through which we can better understand a region in flux, says Gresh.
“These images force Western viewers to examine the way they look at the Middle East, and all viewers to re-articulate our ideas about the stories we thought we knew.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons