PRINT February 2014


“She Who Tells a Story”

Rana El Nemr, Metro #21, 2003, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8". From the series “The Metro,” 2003.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL STORYTELLER IS, of course, Scheherazade—a woman whose very existence is threatened, who reacts by concocting fantasies to keep her would-be executioner enraptured for a thousand and one nights. This legendary ploy underscores an oft-overlooked aspect of storytelling: It can be an act of resistance. The exhibition “She Who Tells a Story,” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this past winter, powerfully evoked fabulation’s insurgent streak. Twelve contemporary women photographers hailing from Iran and the Arab world deployed pictures not just as literal representations, commentaries, or aesthetic objects but as narratives of defiance.

Such contravention extended to the rubric of the show itself, which is the first to bring the work of Middle Eastern women photographers to an American audience. Indeed, the exhibition’s display strategies and the range of discourse it simultaneously inhabited and critiqued deserve as much attention as the photographs themselves. On the face of it, curator Kristen Gresh seemed to be foregrounding the usual themes associated with Muslim and Middle Eastern women (the two are not, however, analogous) in the public eye: the veil; discrimination; the flattening of the female body to the point of becoming a mere page on which to write; the constant background of war and destruction. Some reviewers even raised the question of willful manipulation, speculating that certain series in the show had been displayed piecemeal, without elements that would have diverted the focus away from the identifiable predicament of Middle Eastern women.

But a more attentive look at the exhibition reveals a complex interplay of the culturally specific and the universal. Even though the photographs were grouped into two broad categories focusing on identity building and documenting, respectively, most in fact deconstructed identities and documented absences rather than presences. Take, for example, Jananne Al-Ani’s now-classic work on veiling, the diptych pair Untitled I and Untitled II, 1996, which still shocks in its directness: The artist, her mother, and three sisters alternate in various stages of veiling and unveiling, undermining the stereotype of the mute, veiled, anonymous woman with the sudden revelation of faces and bodies—the banal similitude of covering giving way to the piercing detail of family resemblance. More ironic were the casual photos of women in Cairo from Rana El Nemr’s series “The Metro,” 2003, in which both veiled and unveiled women divulge their weary routines to a ruthlessly nosy camera vérité.

The tension between cliché and reality, shroud and exposure, the humdrum and the violent reached a breaking point with Tanya Habjouqa’s series “Women of Gaza,” 2009. Her veiled women are relentlessly normal: They take aerobics classes, go on boat trips, sit on park benches, rise high on swings, and take photos with cell phones, all in besieged and bludgeoned Gaza. The contrast between these exuberant figures and their bleak setting is so poignant as to seem surreal. Habjouqa beautifully succeeds in humanizing her subjects. But by keeping her focus on Gaza, she refuses to let her viewer relax in the assumption of fellowship with these women. Being normal is, in fact, anything but: It is a way of resisting the Israeli indirect occupation and the medieval mentality by which the women are ruled.

Resistance was also palpable in strategies of withdrawal. Newsha Tavakolian’s “Listen,” 2010—a series incorporating photographs and silent video—portrays six Iranian singers with eyes closed and lips parted, each standing in front of sequined curtains as if on stage. The absence of sound is an overt reference to the ban on women singing in public in Iran. This bold political critique is only heightened by the limitations of the medium: Photography’s muteness means that the unheard songs are plainly visible, the women’s voices only to be imagined. Gohar Dashti’s series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, shot outside Tehran, depicts a somber, aloof couple staging vignettes of everyday life in the midst of the detritus of war. Their defiant passivity—a kind of obdurate disengagement from the world, heightened by the exaggerated contrast between the couple’s calculated detachment and their brutal surroundings—does not spare anything: not war, religious autocrats in Tehran, stifling social norms, nor us, the smug and ultimately blasé viewers of the work, whose own detachment from such realities is to be expected.

Displacement and erasure took on a terrifying cast in Al-Ani’s Shadow Sites II, 2011, in which the artist’s gaze comes down from the sky to survey the Arabian landscape. There, she finds pristine geometric forms: the abstract, leftover traces of immense deserted sites—trench warfare training grounds or irrigation fields. These images, several of which are printed in large format, are sophisticated indictments of the disfigurement inflicted on the vast landscape of Arabia Deserta by colonial wars, grand national military adventures, and the exploitation and extraction of resources. That the photographs were displayed toward the end of the show suggests that Gresh aimed to underscore a shared, expansive political narrative, of which Al-Ani’s work is the logical apex. For the art of the Middle East, as anthropologist Jessica Winegar has argued, confronts a near-impossible task: It is expected both to represent its politics and to negate the presence of politics in its aesthetic choices, for fear of being dubbed either anti-Western or anti-Islamic. “She Who Tells a Story,” however, rose to the challenge, managing to reveal both the hidden and the complex, the seductive and the seditious, the narratives secreted away and those plain for all to see.

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.