Opening This Week: Live Dangerously

Live Dangerously reveals the bold and dynamic ways in which female bodies inhabit and activate the natural world. Twelve groundbreaking photographers, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Kirsten Justesen, Xaviera Simmons, Janaina Tschäpe, and Rania Matar, use humor, drama, ambiguity, and innovative storytelling to illuminate the landscape as means of self-empowerment and personal expression. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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Traditionally, representations of female figures in art history have shown women passively linked to the landscape through gendered associations of nature, eroticism, and fertility. In contrast, Live Dangerously presents fierce, dreamy, and witty images of women presiding over the landscape—all through the lens of the female gaze. From the groundbreaking work of Ana Mendieta to the first-ever installation of all 100 large-scale photographs in Janaina Tschäpe’s 100 Little Deaths (1996–2002), the artists illuminate the planet’s surface as a stunning stage for human drama. Learn about a sampling of the works presented in the exhibition:

Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then (Standing), 2007; Chromira c-print, 30 x 40 in.; Collection of Darryl Atwell; © Xaviera Simmons, Courtesy David Castillo Gallery

On Stage

In Live Dangerously, the earth is dynamic stage that challenges us to view ourselves and our environments in new ways. Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) uses her wide-ranging work to address questions of marginalized bodies in landscapes, particularly regarding womanhood and blackness in the United States. In One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007), a self-portrait in which she gazes directly out at the viewer, Simmons appears tucked into a thicket of reeds, in a dark trench coat, crowned by a curly Afro and dressed in blackface. The image forces the viewer to confront complicated questions, such as the identity and intentions of the subject, and the meaning of blackface in this context. Simmons further reflects on the current social status of both black and white Americans: “How might our entire history have been different had America fulfilled its emancipatory promises to its freed slaves and their descendants instead of commemorating its defeated Confederate planters?”

In Her Element

Artists in Live Dangerously claim their natural environments. Rather than seeming daunted by these extreme landscapes, figures climb, run, and swim through varied terrain, freely and boldly embracing the sublime elements of nature. In her “Ice Pedestal” series (2000, printed 2015), Danish artist Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943) positions herself atop blocks of ice wearing only rubber boots and gloves, letting the ice blocks melt and then refreezing the puddles. Her photographs record this repetitive process of transition from solid to liquid to solid, capturing the idea of mutability and impermanence of the world.

Rania Matar, Yara, Cairo, Egypt, from the series “SHE,” 2019; Archival pigment print, 44 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery; © Rania Matar

Mischief-Makers

Female bodies activate the land throughout Live Dangerously. At times, they appear to be in precarious circumstances, and in others, they intentionally rebel and disrupt societal expectations of genteel, compliant women. In her “SHE” series (2016–ongoing), Rania Matar (b. 1964) photographs young women in lush landscapes in the United States and the Middle East to portray their individual beauty through their relationships with their environments. Matar’s model in Yara, Cairo, Egypt (2019) stands partially obscured in the crevices of a banyan tree, her limbs echoing the trunk’s vertical shoots to create an uncanny air of mystery.

The works in Live Dangerously employ humor, performance, ambiguity, and inventive storytelling to reveal the ways in which female bodies inhabit, and animate, their natural surroundings. The photographers in this exhibition shed new light on the Earth’s surfaces and elements as catalysts for self-expression.

5 Fast Facts: Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895–1989), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe's black and white portrait of Carson McCullers, who poses in a white oxford shirt with her hands above her head, the left clasping a cigarette.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Carson McCullers, 1940; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

1. Name Game

Louise Emma Augusta Dahl was born in San Francisco to Norwegian immigrant parents who believed it was good luck for a child’s initials to spell out a word. Perhaps that superstition had merit, because their daughter became a LEADing fashion photographer in her lifetime!

2. DIY Determination

A self-taught photographer, Dahl-Wolfe initially wanted to be a painter. A meeting with Anne W. Brigman (1869–1950), famed for her evocative photographs of female nudes in natural landscapes, inspired Dahl-Wolfe’s early experiments with a camera. She even cobbled together her first darkroom enlarger using a tin can, an apple crate, and a reflective Ghirardelli chocolate container.

3. Tennessee Triumph

Best known today for her innovative fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe enjoyed her earliest professional success with documentary imagery. Living in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with her husband in the early 1930s, the artist created compelling images of rural life and poverty during the Great Depression. Mrs. Ramsay, Tennessee, her first published photograph, appeared in Vanity Fair in 1933.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe's photo of young actress Lauren Bacall in Helena Rubinstein's Bathroom.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Lauren Bacall in Helena Rubinstein’s Bathroom, 1943; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

4. In Living Color

Dahl-Wolfe’s earliest color images for Harper’s Bazaar appeared in 1937, making her one of the first fashion photographers to embrace the newly available Kodachrome film. She also proved among the most skilled practitioners of the medium. The artist credited her formal training in painting, color theory, and design with honing her eye for color and contrast.

5. Star Gazing

During her 22 years at Harper’s Bazaar, Dahl-Wolfe portrayed many young movie stars, including Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, as well as emerging writers like and Eudora Welty. A 1943 cover by Dahl-Wolfe is credited with helping launch the Hollywood career of 17-year-old model Betty Joan Perske—a.k.a. Lauren Bacall.

—Deborah Gatson is the director of education and interpretation at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Photographer Lori Grinker Documents Life “Afterwar”

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.

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Cover image of Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict by Lori Grinker

Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict
Lori Grinker
(de.MO Design Limited, 2004)

On November 11, many nations around the world will observe Armistice Day, or Veteran’s Day, a holiday first created in 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I—known in its day as “the war to end all wars.”

As Veteran’s Day approaches, 97 years since its first observance, it is sobering to reflect on the many conflicts that continue around the world. Photographer Lori Grinker employs portrait photography and first-person testimony to chronicle the lasting traumas experienced by male and female soldiers in her poignant book Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict.

Grinker highlights veterans from both sides of wars in the 20th and 21st centuries, spanning more than 30 countries and five continents. Within 23 sections—one section for each conflict—Grinker assembles her subjects in an ideologically-alternating arrangement. In a chapter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only one page separates the portrait of a Intifada fighter from that of an Israel Defense Forces veteran. The effect is startling and powerful. Ideologies become irrelevant. Grinker, who received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, manages to evoke something different and unique with each portrait, capturing post-war trauma in many enigmatic iterations.

Arafat Jacoub, Intifada (Palestine), participated 1989–1990 (left) and Yossi Arditi, Israeli Defense Army, served 1971–1988 (right); All photos: Lori Grinker

Arafat Jacoub, Intifada (Palestine), participated 1989–1990 (left) and Yossi Arditi, Israeli Defense Army, served 1971–1988 (right); All photos: Lori Grinker

Grinker writes that her works “originate from the personal but…speak to our commonalities.” She says, “ultimately, my work is about the ephemeral transcendence of everyday experience.” Perhaps the real power of this book is its suggestion that human beings have more that unites than divides them. Viewed in this way, Grinker’s powerful and elegiac perspective elevates Afterwar from journalistic account to artistic testimony.

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Penny Kettlewell, U.S. Army (Vietnam conflict), served 1966–1971; Photo: Lori Grinker

All are welcome to view this book 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.

—Lydia Hejka is the fall 2016 intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

See and Be Seen: Diane Arbus

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,” said Diane Arbus (1923–71), who obsessed about the secrets of others while carefully guarding her own. Six decades after she left commercial fashion photography and began her artistic career, many of Arbus’s previously unknown secrets and photographs have finally been published.

Created to accompany an exhibition at The Met Breuer, the catalogue diane arbus: in the beginning (Yale University Press/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016) showcases photographs from 1956–1962, providing a prelude to the best-selling monograph from Arbus’s 1972 retrospective. Featuring over 100 images, an essay by curator Jeff Rosenheim, and notes from the museum’s archive of her personal papers and negatives, the catalogue focuses on the first seven years of Arbus’s oeuvre. Featuring children, society ladies, carnival performers, and eccentrics, these early photographs depict the development of her famously striking and evocative style.

Arthur Lubow’s meticulously researched and revealing biography Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer (HarperCollins, 2016), published just weeks before the opening of the Met exhibition, provides a similar look behind the curtain shrouding the artist’s mysterious life. In 85 short chapters based on interviews, archival research, and careful study of her work, Lubow describes Arbus’s personal history, philosophy, and approach to photography.

Arbus’s art centered on a profound desire to “not only see her subjects but to be seen by them.” She often talked for hours with people she found interesting before photographing them, charming them into revealing their secrets, hopes, and dreams, waiting for the perfect shot that captured the essence of their personalities. Though plagued by illness, depression, and financial insecurity throughout her life, her inventiveness and creativity made her, as a teacher once noted, “totally original.”

“I do it because there are things that nobody would see unless I photographed them,” said Arbus in a 1968 interview. Through the vivid detail of this biography and the catalogue of dozens of previously inaccessible early works, a full portrait of one of the most celebrated and provocative artists of the 20th century can be seen at last.

All are welcome to view these books, which will be available soon 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.

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

5 Fast Facts: Hellen van Meene

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Hellen van Meene (b. 1972), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.

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Hellen van Meene, Untitled (151), 2002; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 in. x 15 3/8 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

1. Dutch Sensibilities

Van Meene’s depictions of spare domestic interiors and her dramatic use of light are often compared with the compositions of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. She says, “I never work…with a flash…or other artificial light and it brings me to use the same kind of ‘ingredients’ as a painter.”

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Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic color print, 11 3/4 in. x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

2. Not Snap Happy 

“What I do is really like a painter working on a painting—looking, making decisions,” says van Meene.

Her process includes spending considerable time observing and getting to know her models before photographing them. “This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snapping, snapping, snapping away.”

3. Notable Alums

From 1992 to 1996, van Meene studied photography at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959), fellow Dutch photographer and NMWA artist, studied there ten years prior.

Both artists are known for their tender photographs of adolescent girls that reveal the sometimes precious—and sometimes awkward—moments of puberty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Animal Whisperer

The artist’s recent works feature poignant portraits of animals that seem to capture her sitters’ souls and personalities, sharing affinities with the paintings of French animalier artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899).

5. Homegirls

Lorena Kloosterboer, contemporary trompe-l’œil and photorealistic painter, and Anna Louisa Geertruida Bosboom-Toussaint, 19th-century novelist, were born in Hellen van Meene’s hometown of Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.

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: 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!