She Who Tells a Story
Washington - To an Arabic speaker, rawiya is the feminine form of “storyteller”. To an American, “she who tells a story” conveys intrigue and rebellion.
To visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, the literal English translation is the title of a compelling photography exhibit. Through 84 images, 12 Arab and Iranian women deconstruct orientalism, construct identities, and document contemporary life in the show She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.
The photographs are clustered by theme and artist on deep grey, rose pink and stark white walls. Despite the sometimes-difficult realities they capture, they rivet the viewer and conjure empathy, if not warmth.
“The photographs in the exhibition are strong and visitors are drawn to the aesthetics,” said Chief Curator Kathryn Wat, “but when they learn about the experiences and ideas behind the works, they often remark that the exhibition breaks down their preconceptions or teaches them something new. I’ve heard the phrase ‘I didn’t know that’ spoken so many times in the galleries.”
The first Arab artist in the show is Lalla Assia Essaydi, a native of Marrakech and a resident of New York. In Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), she tackles Western stereotypes of Arab women and addresses male-on-female violence. A woman is flat on her back, split across photos in a triptych. She faces the viewer knowingly; her long hair flows frontally; she clasps her hands and bangles on a metallic belt.
Look closely, and she no longer resembles an odalisque in a 19th-century orientalist painting. Her skin is covered in hennaed calligraphy. Her jewels are ligatures. They and the patterns that decorate her bed and fill the background are made of silver and gold bullet casings. Her lips and eyes, alone, remain uncovered to tell her story defiantly.
Even more direct and challenging is the gaze of a young woman wearing an American flag as a hijab in Boushra Almutawakel’s Untitled, 2001, which she made in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Can you be a loyal Muslim and a loyal American or do you have to be one or the other?” she said in the audio guide for the exhibit. “That’s to be answered by whoever’s perceiving the work. There were many Americans who were offended that I had covered her with the American flag, just as there were many Muslims who were offended that she was veiled with an American flag. No one seems to be happy with it, which is maybe a good thing.”
Almutawakel, who was born in Yemen and studied in the United States, explores veiling generally in Mother, Daughter, Doll (2010). Nine photos show her seated with her oldest daughter and her daughter’s doll. Their clothing changes from vibrant to black by the fourth photograph. Their smiles fade. By the sixth shot, they wear the niqab. By the seventh, gloves encase their hands. In the last frame, there is nothing but black. A billow of cloth ripples towards the right, as if they have been “disappeared” from the chair.
“When I was a child in school, we went camping in the coastal plains [of Yemen] and there I remember the women wearing very colourful, beautiful clothing,” Almutawakel said in the audio commentary. “Twenty-five years later, I went to the same city, the same area and was shocked to find everyone dressed in black. It seemed to annihilate the distinctiveness and make everyone one and the same, to be a control of some kind.”
Palestinian Rula Halawani, a former photojournalist and founder of the photography programme at Birzeit University, documents repression on the national level in the series Negative Incursions. During and after Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield of 2002, Halawani took pictures of grief-stricken survivors and destroyed homes in Ramallah and Jenin. A poster of Yasser Arafat looms lifelike in the corner of one.
Halawani enlarged and printed the negatives without reversing the values.
“As negatives, they express the negation of [the Palestinian] reality that the invasion represented. Their darkness allows the spectator to feel the darkness of the days I witnessed during the incursion,” she said in the audio commentary.
By digitally combining photographs of Egyptian soldiers with postcards of alpine and tropical scenes, Nermine Hammam emphasises the vulnerability of young men who policed Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.
In another series, she places scenes of police brutality atop Japanese screens of blooms and birds. The discordance of the foregrounds and backgrounds is disturbing, cinematic and hauntingly effective. The viewer wants Hammam’s subjects to remain in their safe and tranquil settings, to confess their fear or deeds.
Wat said: “Visitors who have roots in the Middle East region emphasise to me that the issues the artists explore are complex and that there are many viewpoints and that’s really the point of the show. The artists tell a particular story but there are many more to be heard.”