For fans of contemporary social issues and photography, “She who Tells a Story” is an exhibit that should not be missed.
“Very powerful, timely, topical, done by women of women and shows the changing time in the Middle East and its influence coming to the West,” was Mary DeGarmo’s initial impression of the exhibit.
On view until January 12 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the exhibit hosts 12 female photographers from Iran and the Arab World, hitting on the issues of identity, war and typically romanticized images of the Middle East known as Orientalism.
Set in a quiet open space, the exhibit allows for personal and global reflection.
The first piece the viewer is confronted with is a triptych by Moroccan born artist, Lalla Essaydi, called Bullets Revisited #3.
The image shows a strikingly beautiful young woman lying down, herself and her surroundings covered in silver and gold bullet casings and her exposed skin inked with the same print as on the cloth that covers her.
Her eyes are provocative and evocative of knowing despite her blank expression. She is a figure that commands attention, her eyes forcing the viewer to look at her directly.
Essaydi’s describes her work as, “using the female body to complicate assumptions and disrupt the Orientalist gaze,” in combination with an underlying tone of violence.
Moving towards the room to the left, the tone becomes that of one dealing with war and violence.
Shadi Ghadira, who was born and currently resides in Iran, presents the viewer with a series of photographs in which images of typical feminine and comforting images are associated with objects of war. One of the most striking images is that of a pair of patent leather red high heel pumps next to dusty combat boots speckled with blood, both placed near a ghostly ajar door and suggesting the convergence of war and femininity and the unknown created when the two meet.
Iraqi artist Jananne Al-Ani captures the Middle Eastern landscape with both photography and a haunting film piece. “Shadow Sites I,” zooms in and out of indeterminable landscapes, fading from desert settings to deserted ruins of homes. With the accompaniment of a whistling wind, the piece leaves the viewer questioning not only what they see but also what has happened to cause the images they’re presented with.
The opposite end of the exhibit deals with identity and the crisis associated with it as a woman in the Middle East.
Photographer Rania Matar, born in Lebanon and currently residing in Brookline, Mass, is exhibited along the back wall.
The photographs exhibited show images of Middle Eastern girls in the personal setting of their bedrooms, showing young women from Lebanon, the West Bank, and a Palestinian refugee camp. The images are raw and provocative, showing all the subjects in their own element and a glimpse of their everyday lives as young women growing and discovering themselves.
“The diversity of settings and sitters reflects the shared experiences of coming of age, as well as the complexities of being a young woman in a particular historical and cultural place,” as stated in the exhibition description.
The pieces exhibited are part of a larger series called “A Girl in Her Room”.
“I was originally inspired by my daughter,” said Matar. “I originally was going to do the serried in then US and I quickly realized it was very important for me to include the Middle East and the refugees from Palestine.”
Matar grew up in Lebanon in the mid ‘70s during the Lebanese civil war and left for the United States to pursue architecture in college.
“I really became a photographer because of all that was happening in the Middle East and the need for me to show a different aspect of it,” she said.
Matar also sites her life in Lebanon as a particular influence in her artistic message and her relationship with her subjects. “I was very much like those girls living there, there is a universality as being a girl and a teenager there. The people beyond these conflicts are the same and the teenage girls show that,” she recounted.
The exhibit is powerful and culturally compelling, drawing the viewer to a deeper meaning of the strength shown by these women and women of the Middle East as a whole.
In reference to the works exhibited, curator Kristen Gresh states that “they challenge that viewpoint, beckoning us to confront our own preconceptions and to explore new cultural landscape.”
The exhibit is one of reflection,
blatantly confronting our preconceptions, as stated by Gresh, but also allowing for women of the Middle East to show a formidable side, one free of prejudices, assumptions and suffering.
Palace Chambers, communications and design major at Leslie University, summed up the power held by both the exhibit and the artists. “It doesn’t seem tortured or what you’re used to seeing”.
“She who Tells a Story” confronts the assumed and highlights tenacity and provides viewers with a gripping and normally unseen interpretation of woman and the Middle East.