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

Through Dec. 1, 2019

Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill

The stories about Arab women that the American media has told, especially since September 11, 2001, often focus on the intersecting effects of Islamic religious imperatives and patriarchal state regimes upon women’s rights, with much ink spilled on the hijab and Sharia law as evidence of women’s lack of agency. By and large, these stories have sought to inspire pity, empathy, and fear, often to justify military interventions in the Middle East—and to maintain a narrative about the superiority of Western values.

There is no shortage of hijabs in She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, an exhibition on view at the Ackland Art Museum through December 1, but it ought to disabuse viewers of simplistic ideas about Islamic women’s lives and experiences, complicating not only the reductive stories we’ve been fed, but also inviting deeper reflection on the specificity of their artistic commentary and the significance of storytelling.

Storytelling is the most human of behaviors: to situate oneself in relation to the experiences of others, communicating not only our affinities but also our differences. In our desire for connection, we tell our stories in order to invite mutual understanding, empathy, and even affection and love. But our stories also serve to distinguish us from others, offering important clues about what connects and separates us.

In the late-twentieth century, questions regarding what constituted modern art gave way to questions about who was allowed to be taken seriously an artist—what kinds of experiences and identities were acceptable subjects and themes. In the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s, women and artists of color created experimental artworks and performances that pushed back against the white-male status quo and the discriminatory conservatism of art institutions. Later, in the infamous 1990s culture wars, Jesse Helms proposed amendments to withdraw NEA funding from artists whom the North Carolina senator and his ilk viewed as a threat to the traditional “values” of white heteropatriarchal culture. These artists brought the identities, bodies, and unique concerns of women, people of color, and queer people to the fore and complicated the criteria for artistic value and beauty.

These struggles for visibility and institutional recognition continue on every front in contemporary art. In recent decades, the centering of “the art world” in North America and Europe—and the tendency of a small yet incredibly powerful coterie of largely white male critics, curators, gallerists, and dealers to ignore groundbreaking work emerging from outside of Western countries—has finally come under siege. Art professionals have been forced to confront their narrow, shallow frameworks. Art is happening everywhere, all the time, and contemporary art has always been “global.”

Which stories are allowed to be told and represented in visual art and media? By and for whom are these stories being told, and which voices are worth listening to? She Who Tells a Story is a thoughtfully conceived (though by no means intended to be comprehensive) engagement with these questions and should be a guide for educators, museums, curators, and collectors who are committed to reimagining their practices and diversifying their collections. Originally curated for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2013, the exhibit traveled to several other museums around the U.S. before arriving in North Carolina. It presents more than eighty photographs, created by twelve important and emerging contemporary artists who were born or currently reside in Iran and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The exhibit arrives as part of a broader Ackland initiative to expand its collection of art from the Islamic world. It also comes to Chapel Hill at a charged moment, as the future of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is uncertain. As The New York Times reported, in September, Trump-administration education department officials published an official letter criticizing the joint program for what they argue is too “positive” a teaching stance on Islamic culture in the Middle East, without similarly positive approaches to Judaism and Christianity and their cultural impact in the region. Reviving the culture wars, Trump officials threatened to cut off the consortium’s federal funding if it didn’t undertake a massive revision of its programming to reflect a more “balanced” orientation.

But She Who Tells a Story is a moving exhibit that invites new reflections, apart from all that noise. The title is a translation of the Arabic word “rawiya” and the name of a contemporary women’s art collective that formed in Iran in 2009. The medium- and large-format works, created between the 1990s and 2012, range in genre from narrative portraiture and landscapes to still life and documentary. Through a variety of techniques, the artists explore the complexities and contingencies of women’s identities and experiences during three decades of political and cultural upheaval.

A few of the artists will be familiar: Iran’s Shirin Neshat, who has achieved the most international renown among the group by far, is represented with film stills from her Rapture series. (Neshat is also curating an exhibit of work by Iranian women artists to open at the High Line Nine galleries in New York City next year.) Iran’s Shadi Ghadirian has attracted significant attention for the Qajar series included here; she was once featured on the cover of Art in America. One of the most visually arresting photographs, “Bullet Revisited #3,” by Morocco’s Lalla Assia Essaydi, comes from a series that has already been shown in several major art museums in the United States, and has been reproduced and written about in recent art-history survey books covering contemporary Middle Eastern art.

The artists visualize everything from encounters between Islamic cultural traditions and the West to the persistent presence of national and international conflicts in their communities, as well as the struggles that emerge in everyday life between the cultural spheres of women (especially in domestic spaces) and the heavily militarized domains of men, where masculinity is continually reconstituted through the activities and accouterments of never-ending war.

Though far from uniform in style or theme, the works all highlight and subvert the constraints placed upon women’s experiences by Islamic laws and cultural traditions. Most important, they also question the simplistic biases of the Western gaze. The aesthetic and material conditions of women’s lives are used to reassert what we think we know, only to be diffused through skillful reframing and unusual, sometimes defiant, sometimes ironic juxtapositions.

Works such as “Don’t Forget This Is Not You” by Iran’s Newsha Tavakolian bear resemblance to the confrontational yet oddly ambivalent portraits by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, in which characters centered within striking landscapes directly confront viewers with unconcerned gazes. As its title suggests, Tavokolian’s work pushes back against the idea that photographic images by and about women from the Middle East necessarily “furnish evidence” (to borrow Susan Sontag’s phrase from On Photography) of the objective truth of their lives, weakening the historical bond between photography as an apparatus for surveillance and as mechanical window into the soul.

Meanwhile, a selection of works from a series entitled Today’s Life and War by Iran’s Gohar Dashti feature characters who cleverly resist viewers’ impulses to decode or speculate upon their emotional landscapes. In one, a couple dressed in wedding attire are seated in a festively decorated broken-down car in desolate terrain. Though they are apparently “just married,” they stare blankly toward the camera as tanks move across the bleak setting behind them. While their disaffected expressions and the playful composition may initially suggest levity, upon further consideration, the landscape of the war-torn region barrels into view, reminding us of the incredible emotional strength (and often, dissociation) required to resist the unraveling effects of immense long-term trauma.

In contrast, documentary portraits such as those of Jordan’s Tanya Habjouqa and Lebanon’s Rania Matar show young women at leisure, in a garden or in their bedrooms, thereby complicating the idea that women in the region live from moment to moment in a near-constant state of suffering and oppression. Instead, they are shown conceiving of and representing themselves as they are or wish to be. Not surprisingly, we observe them doing what young women all over the world do—taking selfies, relaxing, styling their personas and spaces—and indeed, what feminist artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, and Carrie Mae Weems have been doing in their pioneering experimental photographs and performances since the 1960s: constructing themselves in and as images, even as they continue to be subjected to the most pervasive and destructive aspects of the male Western gaze. Meticulously selected garments, accessories, and possessions emerge as important visual and cultural signifiers in the young women’s presentations of their identities.

These photos are part of a lineage through all art history, across periods and cultures, in which the material strata of human experience is a vital tool for storytelling. In portraiture, artists rely heavily on the strategic placement of objects and structures, often in motifs that are easily discerned through related associations and repetition, to construct meaning. The most rigorous visual explorations of objects associated with domestic and social life can be seen in the series by Iran’s Shadi Ghadirian and Egypt’s Nermine Hammam, in which artistic genres—Western still life painting and Japanese woodblock prints, respectively—converge with the materials and images of contemporary life to break open assumptions about femininity and masculinity and articulate alternative stories about how identities are recycled and refashioned alongside aesthetic forms.

For as long as humans have sought to tell their stories, visual art has been a primary means of doing so. Artists tell us a lot about their perspectives, interests, and aims through the choices they make—including the ways in which they mean to access or undermine notions of truth. Art is particularly effective at giving shape to ideas, dreams, desires, and identities previously unimagined or untold. But historically, across cultures, including in the West, women have had their voices regularly silenced or dismissed, which makes the self-definition in this exhibit all the more important.

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