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WASHINGTON, DC — In the dominant narrative about the Middle East, the voices of women are among the most difficult to hear. Here in the West, their words are often drowned out by our perceptions of their oppression, freedom, and alienation within the assumed monolith of regional culture and governance. There’s a narrative Western observers are more than willing to shoehorn Middle Eastern women into, devoid of nuance and complexity, that does just as much to silence them as the societal and legal limitations they face.
It’s against those opposing but similar walls that the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ exhibit She Who Tells a Story pushes. After runs at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, the show has come to Washington, DC, a powerful location for an endeavor that amplifies the voices of women living in a part of the world ravaged by US-led war and policy. The exhibit fittingly shares its name with Rawiya (Arabic for “She Who Tells a Story”), the first Middle Eastern female photography collective, founded in 2009. It seeks to present Arab and Iranian womanhood “far removed from the myths and tales of the ‘Persian’ Queen Scheherazade and the ‘Arabian’ One Thousand and One Nights,” as the introductory wall text states. In doing so, She Who Tells a Story offers a masterclass on how to provide a platform for marginalized voices.
Set in several rooms, the exhibit is broken into three themes: “Deconstructing Orientalism,” “Constructing Identities,” and “New Documentary.” Each offers an opportunity to see how contemporary women living in the Middle East respond to ideas about their own identities and the world around them. Wall text provides crucial context, making the many layers of meaning clear to lay observers who may not know about legal complexities in Iran or the varied forms of veiling across the region.
The works on view are remarkably powerful, at times uncomfortable. In Moroccan artist Lalla Assia Essaydi’s “Bullets Revisited #3” (2012), a woman adorned in gold jewelry lounges on a bed in a traditionally Orientalist pose, before an intricately patterned backdrop. On closer examination, it becomes clear that the backdrop, bed, and jewelry are all made of bullet casings, and the woman’s languid gaze becomes one of confrontation. The work calls up restrictions on and violence against women, but also the need for outsiders to look more closely in order to see the complicated reality of a place often painted in simple, stark strokes.
On an adjoining wall, Iran’s Shadi Ghadirian injects humor into the show with her Qajar series (1998). Ghadirian combined imagery from the Qajar dynasty at the turn of the 20th century with contemporary props to communicate tension between modernity and traditionalism in post-revolutionary Iran. Each black-and-white photograph in the series features a woman in traditional Qajar dress and a classic pose, but holding an anachronistic item: a banned newspaper, sunglasses, a boom box. The pictures capture the contrary realities women face in a changing Iran. Opposite Qajar, Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s Mother, Daughter and Doll series (2010) brings the viewer face to face with multiple forms of veiling. Showing the artist, her daughter, and a doll in each iteration, the series challenges the idea that veiling is a monolithic practice that’s done one way and means one thing to all women in all contexts.
In addition to the navigation of societal and cultural expectations, the show captures war through the woman artist’s lens. Among the most powerful works on this topic is Palestinian former photojournalist Rula Halawani’s series Negative Incursions. During Israel’s 2002 military incursion into the West Bank, Halawani captured images of combat, destruction, and pain. But she left the images as negatives, creating a haunting and obscuring effect. Her proximity to her subjects, which include bombed-out houses and Israeli tanks, also speaks to the myth of the demure Arab woman; she is as close as one can possibly get to the occupation here, unafraid to stare down danger in order to capture its reality.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, artists explore Iranian restrictions on women singing, the changing nature of life for women in Gaza and Egypt, and the relationship between the hijab and American identity. Individually, the works offer an engaging window onto the clash between private and public; hung side by side, they juxtapose subjects like fashion and armed conflict in a way that emphasizes the connection between the personal and the political. Clothing choice becomes an act of confrontation on one wall, while war interrupts the rites of passage that define a young woman’s life on another. At every turn, She Who Tells a Story emphasizes the importance of even the most mundane minutia of womanhood, while grounding the larger, more easily abstracted questions of international conflict in the realities of lived experience.
She Who Tells a Story continues at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through July 31.