She Who Tells a Story: Newsha Tavakolian

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.

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled, from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled, from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Newsha Tavakolian

(b. 1981, Tehran, Iran; lives Tehran)

Photographer Newsha Tavakolian works as a photojournalist as well as an artist. She began her career as a photojournalist for the Iranian press—working for nine publications that are all now banned—and since 2002 has worked for foreign press agencies. Tavakolian’s art often illuminates the lives of women in Iranian society. In her series “Listen” (2010), she addresses social concerns through stirring images of women singers.

In Her Own Words

“I got to a stage in my career where news photography became almost impossible for me. I always give this example: when they keep you from breathing through your nose, you open your mouth to breathe. For me, art photography was necessary to be able to breathe again. I am passionate about documentary and news photography, but I was not allowed to think freely in that realm. . . . I developed a love for art photography too. Tehran is perfect because it is full of untouched subjects. There is a story you could be telling everywhere, although I try not to have a touristy look at my own country. Instead, I try to unfold layers and layers and delve deeper. Tehran is a very unique place.”

“As a woman, subjects that deal with women’s issues come to me naturally. It is as if I am discovering things about myself through my female subjects. As I get older, I have more and more questions about being a woman and it is as if subjects that directly or indirectly deal with women, allow me to understand myself better.”—Newsha Tavakolian on the Leica blog

What’s On View?

Newsha Tavakolian, Maral Afsharian from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print photograph, 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Newsha Tavakolian, Maral Afsharian from the series “Listen,” 2010; Pigment print photograph, 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Photographs and a video installation from Tavakolian’s “Listen” series are on view. The artist wrote, “The project ‘Listen’ focuses on women singers who are not allowed to perform solo or produce their own CDs due to Islamic regulations in effect since the 1979 revolution. The photos are taken of the professional women singers performing in their mind in front of a large audience, where in reality this was taking place in a small private studio in downtown Tehran. Subsequently, in my mind I made a dream CD cover for each of the women, which was my own interpretation of the society I live in and experience. However, the CD cases will for now remain empty.”

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.

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

Artists in She Who Tells a Story explore questions of identity from the perspectives of religion, politics, gender, and history. Highlighting difference, connection, individuality, and universality, these works offer alternate views of Arab and Iranian female identity.

Breaking Silences

A NMWA visitor studies Newsha Tavakolian’s Don’t Forget This Is Not You (for Sahar Lotfi)

A NMWA visitor studies Newsha Tavakolian’s Don’t Forget This Is Not You (for Sahar Lotfi)

Many works on view examine identity in the context of political restrictions on women. In her efforts to explore the social and political circumstances of Iranian women, Newsha Tavakolian photographed and filmed professional female musicians forbidden to record or publicly perform in her series “Listen” (2010).

One part of “Listen” is a series of mock CD covers, combining photographs with imaginary titles for albums that cannot be recorded. The album title for Don’t Forget This Is Not You (for Sahar Lotfi) is written over the image of a woman standing in the ocean “like a modern Venus.”

With a multi-faceted meaning, this work mourns “limitations on her freedom” while maintaining a tone of defiance. “Listen” reminds viewers that Iranian women are more than the ideals endorsed by the powerful, with identities and desires of their own. Simultaneously, the work dissuades men and Westerners from projecting their own biases and identities onto the image. “Listen” insists that Iranian women are not symbols or mirrors to reflect Western beliefs about the Islamic world, but individuals who can tell their own stories.

Women as Storytellers

Tanya Habjouqa’s “Women of Gaza” series offers an alternative view of Arab female identity that focuses on female empowerment. One photograph from the series shows a young woman snapping a picture with her cell phone camera. Depicting the girl in the process of looking and creating subverts viewers’ expectations and challenges stereotypes. The girl is an active subject whose gaze is indirectly fixed on viewers through the screen of her phone, appearing to watch them watching her. Habjouqa shows this young woman as a creator in her own right, upending the stereotypical objectified role of Arab women.

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009; Pigment print, 27 5/8 x 39 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009; Pigment print, 27 5/8 x 39 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery

The work also explores the identity of the photographer. Habjouqa involves her subjects as active participants in creating their portraitsrejects the role of photographers as objective or removed from the circumstances they document. Habjouqa describes her collaborative relationship with the women in these photographs as an essential part of “telling the human story.”

New Possibilities

Artists like Tavakolian and Habjouqa are not simply investigating their own identities. They also share new possibilities for Arab and Iranian female identity and argue that women must be participants in—rather than objects of—representations that seek to tell meaningful stories. By portraying their subjects as active creators and storytellers, these artists reject stereotypes and offer images of women empowered to forge their own paths.

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

Recent Acquisitions at the LRC: Their Stories Through Her Lens

The next time you visit NMWA, come to the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center to see new books on women in the arts, as well as reference books, artists’ books, and more.

Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album
Newsha Tavakolian
(Kehrer Heidelberg Berlin, 2015)

Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album by Newsha Tavakolian

The cover of Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album by Newsha Tavakolian

In Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album, Newsha Tavakolian (b. 1981) documents the lives of nine Iranians in Tehran through 135 pages of full-color photographs. As Tavakolian describes in her artist statement, her photographs represent a generation of Iranians who are “special in their normality.” Despite the burdens of their social and political situation, they continue to persevere in their daily lives. Tavakolian’s subjects are “interchangeable, thus representing many.” They represent a generation whose photo albums end with blank pages, and Tavakolian seeks to fill those pages. Visitors can enjoy Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album in the museum’s Library and Research Center and view other works by Tavakolian in the special exhibition She Who Tells a Story.

Najieh and her two sons during a parade celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Freedom Square, February 11, 2014” (146).

“Najieh and her two sons during a parade celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Freedom Square, February 11, 2014” (page 146 of Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album).

Each section of the book begins with an image taken from her subjects’ childhood photo albums, after which Tavakolian continues the story with her own photographs. Posed portraits among debris on a mountain outside of Tehran, along with candid photos, “visualize a generation marginalized by those speaking in their name.” Short narratives and the captions help to flesh out the stories of these nine middle-class Iranians.

Tavakolian’s photographs show a side of Iran that is not commonly represented in Western media. “As we stopped adding pictures to our albums, we became subject to the perceptions of outsiders and those who focus only on the extremes of our society­—the angry protesters or the mysterious women with their veils,” says Tavakolian. Blank Pages gives readers the opportunity to see Iran through Tavakolian’s lens.

All are welcome to look at this catalogue, which is available in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library is open to the public and makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfortable chairs, library visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artists’ books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

 —­­Katy Seely is an intern in the Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.