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.

Recent Acquisitions at the LRC: The Agonizing and Absurd Moments of Palestinian Life

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. Meet Tanya Habjouqa at the museum on Wednesday, July 27 for a special in-gallery program.

The cover of Occupied Pleasures by Tanya Habjouqa, FotoEvidence, 2015

The cover of Occupied Pleasures by Tanya Habjouqa, FotoEvidence, 2015

Occupied Pleasures
Tanya Habjouqa
(FotoEvidence, 2015)

Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa reveals the agonizing and absurd instants of occupied Palestinian life in Occupied Pleasures. In the foreword, poet Nathalie Handal describes the book as “a collection of stories captured in images, images like Palestinian lives lived in instants only.” Habjouqa’s photographs portray joyous moments­­ of daily life—a family picnics together, women dance, and children swim—that are surrounded by dark circumstances. The occupation is obvious in these images: the menacing security wall looms in the background, a man sits at a checkpoint, a woman holding a bouquet wanders through the tunnel between Gaza and Egypt to a forbidden wedding.

Habjouqa’s work has been exhibited and published worldwide, and six of her photographs are currently on view at NMWA in She Who Tells a Story. She currently works from East Jerusalem on projects concerning identity politics and subcultures of the Levant. Habjouqa is also a founding member of the Rawiya photo collective, a group of women photographers from the Middle East who challenge stereotypes and support fellow women photographers in the region.

Occupied Pleasures contains a combination of photojournalism and imagery illustrating everyday Palestinian life, which Laleh Khalili refers to in the book’s introduction as “evanescent moments.” This body of work offers a nuanced perspective. Khalili writes, “It brings together the indisputable condition of their lives—occupation, violence, surveillance—and shows us that even within the confines of normalised atrocity, the spirit effervesces.”

In one captivating photograph, a man smokes a cigarette in his car outside of a checkpoint, with a sheep in the passenger seat of his car. “Detention juxtaposed against a moment of respite illuminates the extremities of the Palestinian narrative: celebration and mourning, respite and struggle, and the pleasure of smoking a cigarette,” writes Khalili. Through this collection of photos, Habjouqa exposes moments of levity to give the viewer a window into the humanity of the Palestinian people.

Meet artist Tanya Habjouqa at the museum for an in-gallery conversation on Wednesday, July 27. Reserve your spot on NMWA’s website.

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, the library is open to the public Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

 ­­Katy Seely was the winter/spring 2016 intern in the Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Tanya Habjouqa

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in 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.

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009; Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.;Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.567; Photo © 2015 MFA, Boston

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009; Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.;Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.567; Photo © 2015 MFA, Boston

Tanya Habjouqa

(b. 1975, Amman, Jordan; lives East Jerusalem)

Tanya Habjouqa began her early career in Texas photographing migrant communities. Since moving back to the Middle East, she became one of the founding members of the Rawiya photography collective and continues to document everyday life and social issues. Her photographs follow the struggle of the region’s residents as they attempt to live under oppressive conditions.

In Her Own Words

“This coastal community has absorbed over 60 years of suffering, and still, in the face of adversity, maintains an enduring, but necessary, talent for survival, and humor. Life continues and so do the traditions and self-respect, a resistance to letting suffering be the standard definition.”—Tanya Habjouqa

“The more overt, obvious visuals are most often captured with endless local and ex-pat journalists. In some ways, those images have lost their meaning. They are so ubiquitous. There is never enough political context and the gruesome and overt signs of violence can be easy [for photographers to focus on]….What is harder is telling the human story here, which is why I often choose to find the everyday in conflict. Because this conflict is there every day. How they continue to strive and live in normalcy and even laugh.”—Tanya Habjouqa, audio recording for She Who Tells a Story

What’s On View?

Six photographs from Habjouqa’s “Women of Gaza” series are on view in She Who Tells a Story. Taken throughout Gaza over two months in 2009, Habjouqa’s photographs are not images typically associated with siege and conflict. Instead, Habjouqa captures moments of levity in everyday life.

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009, Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.566; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series “Women of Gaza,” 2009, Pigment print, 20 x 30 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography, 2013.566; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

One photograph depicts Gazan women in an aerobics class. The artist says, “These women agreed to be photographed with the caveat that I explained why they are wearing jilbaab, or the long coats, as they work out. They didn’t want to be mocked by the West for wearing such things as they work out. They wanted me to explain that they had very little space to work out or even just to be in public. The decimation of large parts of their neighborhood further limits that. Here they are working out in a public high school gym.”

Like all residents of the occupied territory of Gaza, women enjoy limited freedom. Habjouqa says, “By focusing on women, I gained access to all sectors of society, men and children too, and it was quite often the women who were struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in their destructed lives and households.” Connecting intimately with her subjects, Habjouqa gently portrays the bright side of their not-always-so-bright lives.

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016. Meet Tanya Habjouqa during an artist talk at the museum on July 27, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Shadi Ghadirian

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in 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.

Shadi Ghadirian

(b. 1974, Tehran, Iran; lives Tehran)

Shadi Ghadirian, one of Iran’s leading contemporary photographers, addresses controversial issues concerning Iranian women of her generation. Ghadirian was among the first to graduate from Tehran’s Azad University with a BA in photography. Her works explore female identity, censorship, and gender roles.

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Three of Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs from the “Qajar” series on view in She Who Tells a Story

Because Ghadirian works, lives, and exhibits in Iran, she tackles controversial issues through creative means. She cannot photograph a women’s hair or any physical contact between men and women. Instead she uses humor and parody to investigate the paradoxes of Iranian women’s lives and the tensions between tradition and modernity. 

In Her Own Words

“The photographs depict conscious choices made by these women; an act of rebellion, of subtlety, of changes foreseen.”—Shadi Ghadirian

“I try to tell the different stories of Iranian women, which is somehow my own story too. I want to show a woman from different points of view.”—Shadi Ghadirian, interview in ArtInfo

“Each image shows a woman posing with a symbol of modern life while wearing traditional Iranian dress. This conflict between old and new is how the younger generation are currently living in Iran: we may embrace modernity, but we’re still in love with our country’s traditions.”—Shadi Ghadirian, interview in the Guardian

What’s On View?

She Who Tells a Story includes eight photographs from Ghadirian’s “Qajar” (1998–99) series and five images from “Nil, Nil” (2008). While working at Tehran’s National Museum of Photography, Ghadirian archived photographs from the Qajar dynasty (1786–1925). Inspired by this rich period of Persian culture, she decided to re-create the style of 19th-century portraits for her thesis, which evolved into a series of 33 photographs.

Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled, from the series “Qajar,” 1998, Gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 x 11 7/8 in.; MFA Boston; Museum purchase with the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography and Abbott Lawrence Fune, 2013.571; © Shadi Ghadirian; Photo © 2015 MFA Boston

Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled, from the series “Qajar,” 1998, Gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 x 11 7/8 in.; MFA Boston; Museum purchase with the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography and Abbott Lawrence Fune, 2013.571; © Shadi Ghadirian; Photo © 2015 MFA Boston

Ironically, the clothes worn by the sitters in the archival portraits are more revealing than what is acceptable for Iranian women to wear in public today. The artist says, “I’m not a sociologist, but I hope that when people see my photographs, they’ll understand the reality for women in Iran, then and now.”

Instead of using professional models, Ghadirian had her family and friends pose in vintage Iranian costumes. Set against luxurious 19th-century backdrops and photographed in sepia, her subjects seem stately—with the exception of anachronistic paraphernalia. Each photograph includes a subversive, often Western prop, like Pepsi cans, sunglasses, boom boxes, or banned reading material. Ghadirian’s pastiches juxtapose tradition and modernity and suggest tensions between restriction and freedom.

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

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Lalla Essaydi

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.

Lalla Essaydi

(b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco; lives New York)

Essaydi began her career as a painter—she developed an interest in photography first as a means of documenting her other work, and then, she says, “It became a medium I fell in love with.” She creates multilayered images that confront the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of North African and Middle Eastern women.

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

Her images often focus on a woman or small group of women whose clothing and bodies are decorated to match their surroundings. She uses henna—reclaiming the traditionally “male art of calligraphy”—to challenge gender dynamics within Moroccan and Arab cultures and between the East and West.

In Her Own Words

“When I was at school I made a huge Orientalist painting, and a curator from a museum was interested in it. When I tried to show her my other works, she had less enthusiasm. She only wanted the big fantasy. I started talking about the work, and she was surprised, she had thought the image was autobiographical. I was shocked that an expert in this area of art didn’t even know it was just a sexual fantasy.”

“From that moment, I knew I needed to do something. I am an Arab woman, and I don’t see myself in these paintings. A lot of people ask me why I choose to dwell on this issue, and it’s because it’s not solved.  It may not be about the odalisque now, but the odalisque is what later became the veiled female figure. If we don’t unveil that founding myth first, we cannot begin to address the rest.”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in ArtAsiaPacific

What’s On View?

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 large-scale triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), a set of chromogenic prints on aluminum, is in many ways characteristic of her work: it references Orientalism by depicting a woman lying down, and her body and clothing provide a canvas for henna calligraphy. In addition to henna, however, her surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and golden bullet casings. With these, Essaydi evokes symbolic violence and restrictions on women.

The work’s visible black film borders emphasize the image’s artifice. It is large and visually lush, but Essaydi uses the borders, as well as the elaborate setup and deliberately abstracted, uninviting space, to underscore the fact that it does not reflect reality.

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.

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.

She Who Tells a Story: Boushra Almutawakel

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in 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.

A NMWA visitor studies Boushra Almutawakel’s Untitled from The Hijab series

A NMWA visitor studies Boushra Almutawakel’s Untitled from “The Hijab” series (2001)

Boushra Almutawakel

(b. 1969, Sana’a, Yemen; lives Sana’a and Paris)

Yemen’s first professional female photographer, Boushra Almutawakel, gained international recognition for using the veil to challenge social trends and explore the complexities of public appearance. Almutawakel says, “I want to be careful not to fuel the stereotypical, widespread negative images most commonly portrayed about the hijab/veil in the Western media.”

In Her Own Words

“I wanted to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, the power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, the variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, the beauty, mystery…”—Boushra Almutawakel

“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open.”—Boushra Almutawakel, interview in The Economist

What’s On View?

Ten photographs by Almutawakel are on view in She Who Tells a Story, including nine that comprise her “Mother, Daughter, Doll” series (2010). These staged portraits portray a young girl holding a doll and sitting on her mother’s lap. In each successive photograph, the figures’ smiles fade and their clothing darkens, covering more and more skin. The final photograph shows a black backdrop and an empty pedestal––the mother, daughter, and doll have vanished.

Boushra Almutawakel, “Mother, Daughter, Doll” series, 2010; Pigment prints, nine photographs, each 24 x 16 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by Richard and Lucille Spagnuolo, 2013.556–564; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

Boushra Almutawakel, “Mother, Daughter, Doll” series, 2010; Pigment prints, nine photographs, each 24 x 16 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by Richard and Lucille Spagnuolo, 2013.556–564; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

Almutawakel and her eldest daughter posed for the portraits after the Yemeni women who agreed to be photographed realized the work would be exhibited and declined. The artist said, “I thought, you know, if I’m asking them to take a risk and to be photographed, I said why don’t I put myself to the test and put myself in front of the camera.” The outfits in the first three images are clothes worn and owned by the artist herself, while the others belonged to family members and friends.

Almutawakel says, “I’m not against the hijab—I’m not even against the veil—but it has become a bit excessive in the covering.” Rather than denounce the headscarf (hijab), these portraits protest the more extensive, all-black niqab. Almutawakel’s visual commentary challenges the spread in Yemen of religious extremism, which calls for public concealment of women’s and girls’ bodies.

Listen to an audio recording of the artist discussing her work here. Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.