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.

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.