Can Art Rouse the Spirit? Experience “Revival” this Summer!

On June 23, NMWA’s second floor will come alive with brilliant contemporary sculpture and photo-based art by 16 women artists in the summer exhibition Revival. The show explores the featured artists’ representations of the body, the child, and other creatures through a remarkable range of media, scale, and techniques.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Hanging sculptures, video projections, and large-scale photographs create immersive, mesmeric environments while smaller meticulous works draw the viewer close, beckoning toward sensations that spark memory and emotion. Each artist connects to the unconscious through highly allusive depictions of human and other animal bodies. The artists in Revival employ a wide range of materials in their works. Working with hair, yarn, velvet, wax, marble, found objects, taxidermied birds, and lens-based media, to name a few, these artists explore materiality in meaningful and impactful ways.

In the triptych from the series Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), Lalla Essaydi portrays a reclining woman with her face turned toward the viewer, confronting the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of women. Upon a closer look, the viewer will notice that the figure’s body is covered in henna calligraphy, challenging the tradition of calligraphy as a male-dominated art form. The woman’s dress and surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and gold bullet casings. Essaydi explains her use of bullet casings as a commentary on violence against women in a new post-revolutionary era following the Arab Spring.

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In Cotton to Hair (2012), Sonya Clark juxtaposes a boll of cotton with human hair to allude to the history of slavery in the U.S., acknowledging cotton as a key contributor to U.S. trade and wealth in the early 1800s. Clark combines cotton with a tuft of dark human hair, referencing African American slaves who worked in the fields to create this wealth.

The exhibition features powerful works by Louise Bourgeois, Petah Coyne, Alison Saar, Joana Vasconcelos, Patricia Piccinini, alongside other artists featured in NMWA’s collection. Revival illuminates women who regenerate sculpture and photo-based art to profound expressive effect. A survey of the museum’s collection in its 30th year inspired this exhibition, which is enriched by important loans from public and private collections as well as artists’ studios.

Visit the museum and see Revival, on view from June 23 to September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement 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: Lalla Essaydi

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.

Lalla Essaydi

(b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco; lives New York)

Essaydi began her career as a painter—she developed an interest in photography first as a means of documenting her other work, and then, she says, “It became a medium I fell in love with.” She creates multilayered images that confront the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of North African and Middle Eastern women.

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

Her images often focus on a woman or small group of women whose clothing and bodies are decorated to match their surroundings. She uses henna—reclaiming the traditionally “male art of calligraphy”—to challenge gender dynamics within Moroccan and Arab cultures and between the East and West.

In Her Own Words

“When I was at school I made a huge Orientalist painting, and a curator from a museum was interested in it. When I tried to show her my other works, she had less enthusiasm. She only wanted the big fantasy. I started talking about the work, and she was surprised, she had thought the image was autobiographical. I was shocked that an expert in this area of art didn’t even know it was just a sexual fantasy.”

“From that moment, I knew I needed to do something. I am an Arab woman, and I don’t see myself in these paintings. A lot of people ask me why I choose to dwell on this issue, and it’s because it’s not solved.  It may not be about the odalisque now, but the odalisque is what later became the veiled female figure. If we don’t unveil that founding myth first, we cannot begin to address the rest.”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in ArtAsiaPacific

What’s On View?

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 large-scale triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), a set of chromogenic prints on aluminum, is in many ways characteristic of her work: it references Orientalism by depicting a woman lying down, and her body and clothing provide a canvas for henna calligraphy. In addition to henna, however, her surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and golden bullet casings. With these, Essaydi evokes symbolic violence and restrictions on women.

The work’s visible black film borders emphasize the image’s artifice. It is large and visually lush, but Essaydi uses the borders, as well as the elaborate setup and deliberately abstracted, uninviting space, to underscore the fact that it does not reflect reality.

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!