Urgent Museum Notice

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

A couple sitting in a burned-out car in wedding finery, they look directly at the camera with neutral or stricken expressions.
Landmark exhibition features 12 pioneering artists, challenges stereotypes

WASHINGTON—A landmark exhibition of photographs by 12 contemporary women artists from Iran and the Arab world will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) April 8–July 31, 2016. She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World challenges stereotypes surrounding the people, landscapes and cultures of the region, and provides insight into political and social issues. The exhibition presents more than 80 photographs and a video installation. These provocative works, most created within the last decade, range in genre from portraiture to documentary to staged narratives.

She Who Tells a Story explores themes of identity, war, occupation and protest. It refutes the conventional idea that Arab and Iranian women are oppressed or powerless, illuminating the fact that women are creating some of the most significant photographic work in the region today. 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.

“These groundbreaking artists challenge us to rethink our preconceived notions about Arab and Iranian women and their art,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “They invite us to stand in their shoes and see the extraordinary striking complexities they face. The exhibition highlights their triumphs and struggles, which we hope will stimulate and enhance cultural dialogue on a personal as well as national level.”

The title of the exhibition was inspired by the Arabic word rawiya,which means “she who tells a story.” It is also the name of a small collective of women photographers based in the Middle East, which was founded in 2009. Each artist in the exhibition offers a vision of the world she has witnessed, and each image invites viewers to confront their own preconceptions.

“Women have been pioneers in the mediums of photography and video since their inception,” said NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat. “This exhibition demonstrates that the work of women photographers continues to resonate on a global scale.”

The artists and their work are presented within categories that show photographers deconstructing the stereotypes of Orientalism, constructing subjects’ identities and creating new forms of documentary. Many of the photographers explore questions of identity through an evolving set of narratives, often in response to cultural stereotypes surrounding the Middle East.

She Who Tells a Story was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Presentation of the exhibition at NMWA is made possible through the generous support of an anonymous donor. Additional funding is provided by Marcia and Frank Carlucci, Cindy and Evan Jones, and the Georgia Committee of NMWA.

Deconstructing Orientalism and Constructing Identities

Many of the photographers in this section explore questions of identity through an evolving and shifting set of narratives that must be understood as a response to Orientalism. Historically, Orientalism refers to depictions about the East, including Middle Eastern, North African and Eastern cultures, by European or American artists and writers, which can promote stereotypes about the regions.

Shirin Neshat’s Speechless (1996), from the “Women of Allah” series (1993–97), is an outcome of a visit she made to her native Iran 15 years after the Iranian Revolution. The series marked a turning point in the recent history of representation and debates about the veiled female figure, inspiring exploration by other artists.

Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi uses iconography from 19th-century Orientalist paintings as inspiration to explore and question her own cultural identity. In the 5 1/2 x 12 1/2-foot triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), she uses calligraphy, a characteristically male art form, to suggest the complexity of gender roles within Islamic culture.

The Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s series “Mother, Daughter, Doll” (2010) challenges the rise of religious extremism, increasingly pervasive in Yemen and neighboring countries. The staged portraits do not denounce the hijab, but visually protest the covering of young girls. Another portrait shows a young woman veiling herself with the American flag, questioning the charged symbolism of the headscarf.

In the intimate portraits that constitute Lebanese-born Rania Matar’s series “A Girl and Her Room”(2011), young women pose comfortably in their bedrooms—their personal havens. Personal and poetic, this documentary exploration of female identity and belongings reflects universally shared experiences of coming of age and the complexities of being a young woman.

Newsha Tavakolian presents portraits of professional singers who, as women, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to perform in public or to record music in their native country of Iran. A video shows women emotionally mouthing unheard words, suggesting the idea of imposed silence.

New Documentary

Other works in the exhibition bring artistic imagination to the documentation of real-life experiences. Themes of war, occupation, protest and revolt as well as concerns about photography as a medium are reflected in this new genre.

As one of Iran’s leading contemporary photographers, Shadi Ghadirian explores contemporary life in a postrevolutionary Iranian society with a focus on the role of women of her generation. In her series “Nil, Nil”(2008–09), military objects are contrasted with feminine elements to form domestic still lifes.

Gohar Dashti, who lives and works in Tehran, stages theatrical photographs in her series “Today’s Life and War” (2008), in which a couple pursues ordinary activities in a fictionalized battlefield, juxtaposing discreet and overt signs of military presence.

Egyptian Rana El Nemr and Jordanian Tanya Habjouqa both directly capture urban stories in photographs that address questions of space, identity and the sense of belonging. El Nemr’s “The Metro” series (2003) records the rapid changes being experienced by middle-class urban Egyptians. Habjouqa’s “Women of Gaza” series (2009) features some of her most powerful and poignant images of the plight of women in the coastal community of Gaza as they struggle to normalize life within the conditions of oppression.

Rula Halawani, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem who has a background as a photojournalist, created the series “Negative Incursions”(2002) to address the experience of displacement and destruction. She enlarges and prints negatives without reversing their values, producing the effect of nightvision camera images used for military or scientific purposes.

Cairo-based Nermine Hammam’s series Cairo Year One (2011–12) addresses the 18-day uprising in Egypt in January 2011 and its aftermath. A number of her prints blend photographs of soldiers in Tahrir Square with bucolic landscapes sourced from postcards. The series likens the events of Tahrir Square to a tourist attraction—while it drew the world’s attention, it was not fully understood. Codes of My Kin reproduces the controversial image from the Arab Spring of a woman, later referred to in the press as the Blue Bra Girl, being dragged on the ground by soldiers.

Iraqi-born Jananne Al-Ani depicts the Jordanian landscape from an airplane using both still and moving images. Reminiscent of wartime aerial reconnaissance photography, the images feature land that bears traces of natural and manmade activity as well as ancient and contemporary structures that testify to loss and history.

She Who Tells a Story was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from Aug. 27, 2013–Jan. 12, 2014. The exhibition then traveled to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University from Jan. 28–May 4, 2015, and to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh from May 30–Sept. 28, 2015.


She Who Tells a Story (MFA Publications, 2013) explores the pioneering work of 12 women photographers from Iran and the Arab world: 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. The 176-page book features essays by Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Michket Krifa, an independent curator and art critic of African and Middle Eastern photography. It will be available in hardcover for $40 in the Museum Shop and online at http://shop.nmwa.org

National Museum of Women in the Arts

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the world’s only major museum solely dedicated to celebrating the creative contributions of women. The museum champions women through the arts by collecting, exhibiting, researching and creating programs that advocate for equity and shine a light on excellence. NMWA highlights remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. The museum’s collection includes over 4,700 works by more than 1,000 women artists from the 16th century to the present, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker and Nan Goldin.

NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit nmwa.org. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days take place on the first Sunday of each month. For more information about NMWA, visit nmwa.org, Broad Strokes Blog, Facebook or Twitter.