From the tales of the “Persian” Queen Sheherazade to the “Arabian” stories contained in “One Thousand and One Nights,” what little Westerners have learned of the culture of the Arab world over the past two centuries has been the stuff of myth and legend.
A new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art, “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World,” promises to shatter those notions.
The exhibit features over 70 works by a dozen Middle Eastern artists — Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Assia Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat and Newsha Tavakolian.
The works offer a collection of stories about contemporary life in the Arab world that, above all, refutes the belief that women from the region are oppressed and powerless.
“While this show is definitely grounded in daily life in Iran and the Arab world, a lot of it goes beyond that, too,” says Dan Leers, the museum’s curator of photography.
“A lot of the work does deal with daily life in those places, but I actually think that a lot of it transcends those experiences and absolutely relates to our daily lives here and to bigger social, political and even economic issues that the rest of the world is dealing with.”
To that end, Leers says the show is broken down into two sections — “Constructing Identities” and “New Documentary.”
In regard to the first part, “Constructing Identities,” Leers says, “This is looking at both the private lives these artists and women like them are leading, but also more public personae and perception of females in Iran and the Arab world in a broader context.”
While most of the work was made from 2008 to ’12, the exhibit includes an important series from the 1990s that marked a turning point in the recent history of representation and inspired exploration by other photographers.
Shirin Neshat’s 1996 series “Women of Allah” is represented with an untitled portrait of a woman putting her hand to her lips, which has been overlaid with Persian script from a contemporary Iranian woman writer.
The image evokes the role that women played in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Leers says.
“That really signaled the return to conservative religious identity and even some forms of extremism in the country that we are still grappling with today,” Leers says of the revolution.
“She’s giving them a voice by inscribing the text on the image,” he says of Neshat’s piece, “because she herself has drawn on the image.”
Opposite Neshat’s work hangs one of the most arresting images in the exhibit, “Bullet Revisited #3” (2012) by Lalla Assia Essaydi.
Like much of Essaydi’s work, this image is reminiscent of a scene from a 19th-century Orientalist painting. Here, however, the elaborate decorative patterns that cover and surround the figure’s body are composed of silver and golden bullet casings, and the figure herself, wrapped in gauze, is covered in Arabic script written with henna.
“The writing is illegible,” Leers says. “She doesn’t want you to be able to read what has been written, because it is so personal for her.”
The second part of the exhibit, “New Documentary” features works that address social and political issues as depicted in real-life situations and experiences that appropriate documentary formats. “Something we are all familiar with,” Leers says.
In Gohar Dashti’s series of photographs titled “Today’s Life and War” (2008), she presents a narrative through staged photographs of a man and woman involved in domestic activities, such as doing the laundry or watching television, in a fictionalized battlefield.
For example, in “Untitled #5,” they sit as newlyweds in the shell of an abandoned car. In “Untitled #7,” they eat on the ground at a makeshift traditional table celebrating the Persian New Year. The four remaining prints show the couple performing daily routines, but interrupted by symbols of war — a tank, missile head and a wall of sandbags.
Opposite Dashti’s works hang pieces from Nermine Hammam’s series “Cairo Year One” (2011-12). Here, Hammam depicts the January 2011 uprising in Egypt and its aftermath, but with a peculiar twist: Hammam imbedded photographs of soldiers in Tahrir Square within peaceful landscape scenes from her personal postcard collection.
She created two prints after the uprising was over — when it was difficult for her to photograph — by combining reproductions of 17th- and 18th-century Japanese screens with photos of police brutality.
The show culminates with half a dozen images from Rania Matar’s series “A Girl and Her Room,” in which she presents six portraits of young women in their bedrooms surrounded by their belongings.
Leers is quick to point out that each shot was taken in Lebanon, even though some look as if they were shot in this country.
“Whether it’s through media or general stereotyping, we have this pre-formed image of what women in the Arab world are like, and what Matar is showing that there is no one identifying characteristic,” Leers says. “Work like this really speaks to stereotypes and preconceived notions of people from this place and the places themselves. … As we start to see the work in this show, there really is an entire world that we are not accustomed to seeing.
“And hopefully this show can be a jumping off point in which we ask ourselves, why is that and how can we change that?”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media.