She Who Tells a Story: Rania Matar

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World offers a vision of the world she has witnessed.

Rania Matar

Rania Matar at NMWA in front of one of her photographs in She Who Tells a Story; Photo: NMWA

Rania Matar with one of her photographs in She Who Tells a Story; Photo: NMWA

(b. 1964, Beirut, Lebanon; lives Brookline, Massachusetts)

Photographer Rania Matar says, “I was born and raised in Lebanon. I moved to the U.S. to go to architecture school in 1984. . . . I am very much part of both cultures, and both places have shaped my identity.” Matar’s documentary photographs depict women and girls in the U.S. and the Middle East, highlighting universal themes of developing identity. “A Girl and Her Room,” her largest series, features images of young women surrounded by their possessions and creations.

In Her Own Words

“In 2002 I was in Lebanon and went with a cousin of mine to a Palestinian refugee camp. I was shocked to see how people were living so close to where I had grown up and more shocked by the fact that I had no idea. I just started photographing people in the camps, and fell in love with the ability to tell a story through photography.”—Rania Matar, in an interview with Lenscratch

“After my first book, Ordinary Lives, about women and girls in refugee camps and in the aftermath of war in Lebanon, was published, I started the project about teenage girls. . . . inspired by my older daughter, then 15. I was watching her passage from girlhood into adulthood, fascinated with the transformation taking place, the adult personality taking shape.” Matar photographed her daughter with her friends and realized how the girls’ interactions shaped the identities they portrayed: “From this recognition, the idea of photographing each girl alone by herself in her personal space emerged. The room was a metaphor, an extension of the girl, but also the girl seems to be part of the room, to fit in, just like everything else in that material and emotional space.”—Rania Matar, audio recording for She Who Tells a Story

What’s On View?

Rania Matar, Reem, Doha, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2010; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Rania Matar, Reem, Doha, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2010; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Several works from the series “A Girl and Her Room” are on view. Matar says, “The images here are part of that series in the Middle East—Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. They include six young women from all backgrounds and religions, and it is honestly not obvious at all to guess which one is Muslim, Druze, or Christian. The focus is on being a girl, on growing up, and on identity. . . . Being with those young women in the privacy of their world gave me a unique peek into their private lives and their inner selves.”

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Deconstructing Orientalism in “She Who Tells a Story”

NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World is organized around three themes: Deconstructing Orientalism, Constructing Identities, and New Documentary.

She Who Tells a Story on view at NMWA, Photo: Lee Stalsworth

She Who Tells a Story on view at NMWA, Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Orientalism” refers to ideas about Eastern cultures that reflect Western fantasies and political priorities rather than reality. The 19th-century art movement established many artistic conventions that have had a lasting impact on how these regions—and their inhabitants—are portrayed.

The artists in She Who Tells a Story show an awareness of the influence of Orientalism on the representation of Iran and the Arab world.

By critiquing Orientalist artistic conventions, these artists forge a place for themselves as narrators of their own experiences rather than objects of fantasy.

Objectification of the Female Body

Many works in She Who Tells a Story examine the role of the female body in Orientalist imagery. Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets Revisited #3 reveals the inherent violence in objectified representations of women.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

The triptych portrays a reclining woman covered with henna calligraphy and surrounded by bullet casings. The subject simultaneously entices viewers with beauty and confronts them with violence, signified by the bullet casings and fragmentation of the body. The photograph mingles violence and pleasure as the figure’s gaze confronts viewers.

Exotification and Imperialism

Artists also engage with the Orientalist tradition to reveal its political ties to imperialism. Rania Matar’s Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” echoes the work of 19th-century Orientalist painters, whose popular works often showed idle figures in exotic but decaying settings.

Rania Matar, Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2009; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Rania Matar, Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2009; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Art historians have argued that this convention implies that the people portrayed are passive and morally deficient—a political message meant to justify colonization. The identification of the setting of this photograph as a refugee camp questions these assumptions by linking idleness and disrepair to war and displacement rather than moral failings. This, along with the subject’s direct and self-aware gaze, exposes the fallacy of Orientalist reasoning and redirects moral scrutiny onto the legacy of colonialism that continues to contribute to modern conflict.

From Object to Subject

The ongoing use of Orientalist imagery is a major concern for many of the artists featured in She Who Tells a Story. By deconstructing the political and visual conventions of Orientalism, artists like Lalla Essaydi and Rania Matar expose their violence and inaccuracy. The destruction of the Orientalist fantasy of Middle Eastern womanhood also allows for the possibility of female subjects—women who can see, think, create, and tell their own stories.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.