New Documentary 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: New Documentary, Constructing Identities, and Deconstructing Orientalism.

She Who Tells a Story artists use artistic and documentary techniques to both depict experiences and address concerns about the medium of photography. Through staging, editing, and other manipulations, artists like Gohar Dashti and Rula Halawani question the objectivity of the photograph while expressing deeper truths about their subjects.

The Legacy of War

Gohar Dashti’s series “Today’s Life and War” shows the everyday activities of a couple in a fictionalized battlefield. Dashti, who grew up during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88), says that her series “represents war and its heritage, how it permeates all aspects of contemporary society.” Concerned with capturing moments that ”reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope,” Dashti’s staged photographs convey the legacy of war.

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #2, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008; Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weintz Family Harbor Lights Foundation, 2013.555; © Gohar Dashti

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #2, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008; Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weintz Family Harbor Lights Foundation, 2013.555; © Gohar Dashti

Untitled #2 depicts a female figure hanging white cloths over barbed wire. In the blurred background, viewers can detect a male figure and military vehicles. The scene’s strange, dramatic elements emphasize its artificiality. Dashti’s photograph symbolizes the presence of war in everyday life rather than depicting real events. The barbed wire enclosure evokes borders and restriction, while the act of hanging white cloths suggests both mundane tasks like laundry and a longing for peace.

Violence and Erasure

“Negative Incursions” was Rula Halawani’s first artistic project after she left the field of photojournalism. A Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, the artist captured these images during the 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank. Rather than produce standard journalistic images, Halawani enlarged the negatives and printed them with a thick black border.

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Her use of negatives suggests military imagery and draws attention to the technical processes of photography. “Negative Incursions” acknowledges the bias of all representations, even photographs, and encourages viewers to look for distortions elsewhere. Thick black borders framing the images—reminiscent of a television screen—echo this by critiquing media bias and inattention to Palestinian suffering.

Halawani’s technique also encourages viewers to approach these scenes from a fresh perspective, eliciting new responses from audiences whose exposure to the conflict has been oversaturated with graphic images of war and violence. Her disorienting negative images draw the viewer into an alien landscape, prompting shock and horror upon closer inspection. Not only a document of real events, Halawani’s series represents a collective experience of suffering, the subjectivity of the medium of photography, and the “negation of [Palestinian] reality” by military violence and media indifference.

New Stories

Dashti and Halawani both document their own experiences and the collective experience of their generation, community, or culture. Using art photography together with documentary techniques, they question the links between photojournalistic photography and a single, objective truth. Their creative interventions infuse their works with meaning and challenge the neutrality of mainstream narratives, making room for other stories to be told.

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

She Who Tells a Story: Gohar Dashti

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.

Gohar Dashti

(b. 1980, Ahvaz, Iran; lives Tehran)

Gohar Dashti creates photographs that reference history and culture within contemporary society, particularly her homeland, Iran. She says, “Because my work is about social issues in Iran, I have to touch it, I have to feel it, if I want to do artwork.”

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Left to right: MFA Boston curator Kristen Gresh and She Who Tells a Story artist Gohar Dashti during the exhibition’s opening reception; Photo: NMWA

In Her Own Words

“This conflict [the eight-year Iran–Iraq War, 1980–88] has had a strong symbolic influence on the emotional life of my generation. Although we may be safe within the walls of our homes, the war continues to reach us through newspapers, television and the Internet. [Dashti’s series ‘Today’s Life and War’] represents war and its legacy, the ways in which it permeates all aspects of contemporary society. I capture moments that reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope. In a fictionalized battlefield, I show a couple in a series of everyday activities: eating breakfast, watching television, and celebrating their wedding. Though they do not visibly express emotion, the man and woman embody the power of perseverance, determination, and survival.”—Gohar Dashti, artist statement for “Today’s Life and War”

What’s On View?

Several of Dashti’s photographs from the “Today’s Life and War” series are on view in She Who Tells a Story. The two models in these images proceed through activities of daily life amid signs of war—barbed wire, tanks, and sandbags—in a desert landscape. In some images, such as one that shows them sitting in a burned-out car in wedding finery, they look directly at the camera with neutral or stricken expressions. In others, they look to each other, to their chores, or to TV, newspapers, or computers.

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #5, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Azita Bina, and Robert Klein Gallery; © Gohar Dashti

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #5, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Azita Bina, and Robert Klein Gallery; © Gohar Dashti

Dashti says that the site for the photographs is a government-owned area used by filmmakers creating movies about war. She was able to secure the location—a huge area—to take pictures, and she selected 10 of her staged photographs for the finished series. Through this series, Dashti hoped to evoke the experience of her generation, who had to proceed with their lives and youths in spite of the war around them.

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.