The Lives of Middle Eastern Women, Through a Camera’s Lens

by Sura Wood

A new exhibition at the Cantor Art Center presents provocative work by a dozen leading Middle Eastern female artists.

In the media, women of the Middle East are frequently portrayed as oppressed second-class citizens unable to shape their own destinies, deprived of their rights and autonomy and forced to cover up parts or all of their bodies in public. But what do Westerners really know about their inner lives? “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World,” a new exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center, illuminates the complexities of this relatively unexplored terrain by showcasing work by a dozen leading female artists of the region. The show’s 79 mostly color photographs along with a pair of videos examine issues of identity and representation, and the ravages of war and its impact on daily life, while attempting to forge a deeper understanding of both the Middle East and the psyches and personal experiences of the women of diverse cultural backgrounds whose work is on view. As Colleen Stockman, the Cantor’s assistant curator for special projects, explains, “The exhibition creates a dialogue and [provides] a powerful alternative to the inundation of calculated media images that are fed to North Americans about the many different countries represented in the show.”

A number of artists, like Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel, critique various symbols of repression, such as the hijab (headscarf) or the niqab, a veil that obscures the head, chest and face except for the eyes, as well as laws that limit women’s freedom, offering perspectives that refute commonly held Western assumptions.

Iranian-born, New York-based photographer Shirin Neshat takes a forthright approach, asserting in the introduction to “Women of Allah” (1996), a series of portraits she took during a return visit to her native country more than a decade after the 1979 revolution, that “In Iran women are quite
powerful, unlike their clichéd image.” In her portraits, which are overlaid with the words of contemporary authors written in Persian calligraphy, and intended to highlight the role of women in the uprising, Neshat says she’s transforming “the feminine body into that of a warrior, determined and even heroic.” In one enigmatic exhibition image, for instance, a woman, whose eyes are out of camera range, raises her heavily inscribed fingers to her closed lips, while in another, a young woman, staring intently at the viewer, covers her heart with her hand as if making a pledge.

Another photographer, the international photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, a regular contributor to the New York Times, also challenges stereotypes of Iranian women. Self-taught, she worked for nine of Iran’s reformist papers that were subsequently banned and, in 2009, her press card was revoked. It was during this restrictive period that Tavakolian embarked on “Listen” (2010),
a two-and-a-half-year project that resulted in a
series of large-format portraits of professional female Iranian singers forbidden by Islam to record or perform in public. She conceived the photographs as faux CD covers for each of them. “Don’t Forget This is Not You,” for example, shows Sahar Lotfi standing in the middle of rough ocean waves, facing toward shore with a mournful expression that seems to suggest that she can’t venture out into the larger world. For a companion video, Tavakolian shot silent clips of the chanteuses, who are seen singing but cannot be heard.

Juxtapositions, which crop up in most of the work in the exhibition, are used “to address larger paradoxes, dichotomies and dualities common in their societies,” explains exhibition curator Kristen Gresh. “Such questions relate to public versus private, visible versus invisible, the spoken versus the silent and the permissible versus the forbidden.”

Shadi Ghadirian’s “Nil, Nil” (2008) constructs a series of tableaux comprising incongruous masculine and feminine objects in domestic settings.
“The man is in the war. She is inside the house.
She is waiting for him,” writes Ghadirian of several large-scale color images that pointedly contrast public personas and covert desires: sexy red stilettos lay on the floor near a pair of worn combat boots; a helmet and headscarf hang alongside each other on the wall; a grenade resides in a fruit bowl with apples and oranges; a glitzy handbag is stuffed with cosmetics and bullets; a blanket is pulled back to reveal a rifle grenade amidst rumpled bed linens.

Gersh points out inherent juxtapositions in the work of Lalla Essaydi as well. Born and raised in Morocco, Essaydi, who has lived in Saudi Arabia and France and currently splits her time between Marrakech and New York, has first-hand know-ledge of what it means to be both an insider and an outsider. Trained as a painter, she orchestrates performance-based photographs that delve into Orientalism and myths of female identity, areas of investigation that converge in “Bullets Revisited #3” (2012), an alluring, Old World triptych loaded with jarring contradictions. “Essaydi applies henna calligraphy to her subject’s body. [She uses] Islamic calligraphy, a male sacred form of art, [as] an intentional juxtaposition, raising questions about gender roles in society,” notes Gresh. In this striking piece, which reflects Essaydi’s concerns about the growing restrictions women face in the Middle East and North Africa in the post-Arab Spring era, a voluptuous, barefoot woman with dark, luxuriant hair is laid out on a bed like an exotic odalisque in a 19th-century harem painting. Gazing directly into the camera, she’s draped in fabric and decorated with gleaming gold and silver bullet casings, materials usually associated with violence that in this context also evoke sensuality.

Contradictions are also prevalent in the work of Gohar Dasht. She drew on her memories of growing up near the Iran/Iraq border and living through the war between those two countries (1980-88) for “Today’s Life and War,” a half-dozen staged, narrative photographs that address the legacy of war and the insidious ways it infiltrates all aspects of daily life. In the documentary-style series, a newlywed couple struggles to achieve normalcy on a fictional battlefield in scenes composed with eloquent irony. The lovers celebrate Persian New Year at a makeshift table, seemingly oblivious to the tank gun aimed directly at them, or sit, attired in wedding clothes, in an abandoned car festooned with bright ribbons. They hang laundry to dry on barbed wire and picnic on ground littered with empty combat helmets whose former owners are presumably among the dead.
“It’s my story,” says Dashti.

“She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers
from Iran and the Arab World”

Through May 4

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University

328 Lomita Dr.