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.