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Deconstructing Orientalism in “She Who Tells a Story”

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
A gallery view of a black wall with a large photograph of a woman. The woman is wearing a long black dress and a head scarf. She is standing in the ocean, surrounded by waves. On the right wall is a text that says "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.

A view of a gallery space with black walls and a large photograph of a woman standing in an ocean.
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.

Three photographs join to show a woman lying on a bed on her back. Turning her head to look at the viewer, she wears airy light clothing and a heavy, wide gold belt and her long hair falls to the floor. A metallic surface covers everything - the walls, furniture and the woman.
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.

A woman is sitting on a thin mattress on a floor. The room has dirty walls and looks bare. There are writings on the wall. She looks towards the camera. She is barefoot.
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.

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