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.

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.

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.

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: Rana El Nemr

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.

Rana El Nemr

(b. 1974, Hanover, Germany; lives Cairo)

IMG_0488

A NMWA visitor gazes at Metro (#7) in She Who Tells a Story

Primarily working with conceptual photography, Egyptian artist Rana El Nemr captures urban stories that focus on ideas of space, identity, and the sense of belonging. She is also a co-founder of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), a platform for contemporary Egyptian art.

In Her Own Words

“I try [in the series “The Metro”] to capture the riders’ response to the urban underground, the train, the station, and its vibrant ceramic designs. Riders become figures defined by form, line, and color in the midst of a congested modernity in which they no longer have a sense of place.”—Rana El Nemr

“When I was watching people and watching the space, I became very obsessed by how the space made the people, some of the people who are using the space, how it made them so absorbed, and so kind of out of their body’s presence in a way.”—Rana El Nemr, WGBH News

What’s On View?

In four images on view from her series “The Metro” (2003), El Nemr inconspicuously photographs passengers in the first car of Cairo’s subway, which is reserved for women and children. Her subjects are shown seated or standing, often absorbed in thought. Some riders are only glimpsed through the car’s windows, as seen in Metro (#7). Conveying the anonymity of city life, El Nemr’s subjects seem to be alienated. The artist describes them as “vulnerable to cycles of depression, indifference, and religious intolerance—illnesses that are both caused by, and transmitted to, the rest of Egyptian and Arab society and the world.”

Rana El Nemr, Metro (#7), from the series “The Metro,” 2003; Pigment print, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with general funds and the Abbott Lawrence Fund, 2013.569; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

Rana El Nemr, Metro (#7), from the series “The Metro,” 2003; Pigment print, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with general funds and the Abbott Lawrence Fund, 2013.569; Photograph © 2015 MFA Boston

El Nemr’s photographs record the rapid changes that middle-class Egyptians encounter in the megalopolis of Cairo. Her works convey the displacement and belonging that affect interactions between people and public space. Metro (#7) depicts the backs of two subway riders through the blue-and-white exterior of the car. The pairing of their black and white abayas, each framed by a window of the closed doors, demonstrates the artist’s eye for asymmetrical compositions.

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: 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.

She Who Tells a Story: Jananne Al-Ani

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.

Janane Al-Ani’s work on view in She Who Tells a Story

Jananne Al-Ani’s work on view in She Who Tells a Story

Jananne Al-Ani

(b. 1966, Kirkuk, Iraq; lives London)

Jananne Al-Ani is a photographer and video artist whose work has explored representation and conspicuous absence of the human body. Earlier in her career, she created work that depicted veiled women, examining stereotypes of Orientalism and cultural identity. More recently, Al-Ani has focused on landscapes, using aerial video and photography to show ambiguous sites with traces of inhabitation or seeming abandonment.

In Her Own Words

“The media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, which focused on aerial and satellite images of a depopulated, barren landscape, had a major impact on my work. What followed was a reassessment on my part of the work of Orientalist painters and the way in which fantasies about the body and the landscape of the Middle East were constructed in their works. I began to see the body itself as a contested territory and during the 90s produced a series of works that attempted to counter the European obsession with uncovering and exposing the bodies of veiled women. More recently, with the Aesthetics of Disappearance project, I’ve attempted to re-occupy that space so, while the presence of the body is implied rather than explicit, the traces of human activity in the landscape are clear to see.”—Jananne Al-Ani, interview with Nat Muller in Ibraaz

What’s On View?

Jananne Al-Ani, Aerial I, production still from the film Shadow Sites II, 2011; Chromogenic print, 72 x 91 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011; © Jananne Al-Ani

Jananne Al-Ani, Aerial I, production still from the film Shadow Sites II, 2011; Chromogenic print, 72 x 91 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011; © Jananne Al-Ani

Al-Ani’s photograph Aerial I is a still image from her film Shadow Sites II, which in turn is part of her project The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People. She explains, “The actual term ‘shadow site’ is borrowed from the field of aerial archaeology and refers to the practice of surveying landscapes from the air at dawn or dusk when the raking light serves to reveal low lying features on the ground—details that would otherwise remain invisible.”

She was inspired by Edward Steichen’s WWI reconnaissance photography, which she saw as “strikingly beautiful images of landscapes obliterated by shelling and criss-crossed by trenches, but abstracted to such a degree as to have become exquisite and minimal works of art.”

For this work, which depicts southern Jordan, she emphasizes the image’s ambiguity. Al-Ani says, “My guiding preoccupation was with the ways that the evidence of atrocity and genocide haunts the often beautiful landscapes into which the bodies of victims disappear.”

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.

Opening Tomorrow—“She Who Tells a Story”

Large-scale photographs by contemporary women artists illuminate their perspectives and challenge stereotypes in She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, on view April 8–July 31, 2016.

More than 80 images by 12 artists are arranged around themes of Constructing Identities, Deconstructing Orientalism, and New Documentary. Photographs within these overlapping categories, most created within the last decade, explore the people, landscapes, and cultures of the region. The title of the exhibition was inspired by the Arabic word rawiya, which means “she who tells a story.”

The exhibition She Who Tells a Story at NMWA

The exhibition She Who Tells a Story at NMWA

Each artist in the exhibition offers a vision of the world she has witnessed, and each image invites viewers to confront their own preconceptions.

The exhibition features artists Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian.

Constructing Identities

Public personas, private desires, and political convictions are reflected in photographs on view, such as several images from Beirut-born Rania Matar’s “A Girl and Her Room” series, portraits of teenage girls and young women in the privacy of their surroundings that are both intimate and universal.

Diversity within contemporary visual media from Iran and the Arab world is, in part, a product of the distinct regional identities in the Middle East. The photographers come from varied backgrounds, and they offer new perspectives on social, political, historical, and even universal identity.

Deconstructing Orientalism

A visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets Revisited #3 (2012)

A visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets Revisited #3 (2012)

The term “Orientalism” refers to depictions of the Middle East and East Asia by Europeans or Americans—romanticized visions that reflect the goals of Western colonialism and imperialism. The images in this section show the critical view contemporary artists have taken toward Orientalism, especially in regard to depictions of women and the hijab, or headscarf. Here women stage themselves as protagonists in dramatic settings, in contrast to the male-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

The triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) by Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, evokes a 19th-century Orientalist painting, but she incorporates elements like calligraphy and bullet casings to comment on Western versus Eastern cultures as well as gender dynamics in the Arab world.

Visitors explore Gohar Dashti’s works at NMWA

Visitors explore Gohar Dashti’s works at NMWA

New Documentary

The images here combine artistic imagination with documentary techniques—from aerial photography to scenes of life amid conflict—to reflect contemporary experience.

Palestinian artist Rula Halawani’s “Negative Incursions” series is printed in negative to evoke the disorientation of conflict and to comment on media representations of the region.

She and the other photographers explore themes of urbanity, war, occupation, protest, and revolt, as well as concerns about the medium of photography itself. From the untold stories of Middle Eastern landscapes to those of urban anonymity, these works challenge the mass media and, more specifically, the present-day visual representation of the Middle East.

Learn more about She Who Tells a Story and related programs, and plan your visit soon!