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Ave Lalla Essaydi

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

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)

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

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!

Posted inNews and Updates, NMWA Exhibitions | Taggedcontemporary photographers, Lalla Essaydi, she who tells a story, women photographers, women photographers from Iran and the Arab World

While Ms. Essaydi changes her source images, stripping them of their luminous colors, removing male figures or replacing them with women, and covering up the nudity, I am not sure that she always transforms them enough. Too often her photographs look like an exercise in voyeurism, replicating rather than revising the stereotypical imagery she is working with.

Take, for example, “Les Femmes du Maroc #1” (2005), based on a Delacroix painting, “Algerian Women in Their Apartment” (1834), depicting three Arab women as slaves imprisoned in an exotic and secluded harem. Ms. Essaydi simplifies the setting by eliminating the colorful draperies and props, but her picture still retains some of the languorous sensuality of the original Orientalist painting.

My problem with these photographs is that Ms. Essaydi, by retaining the basic compositions, gestures and general style of dress of the original paintings, often leaves her women stuck in the same Orientalist fantasy that she purports to critique. Instead of changing the way in which we see Arab women, these photographs revive old-fashioned stereotypes.

“Les Femmes du Maroc #4” (2005) is an instantly striking photograph based on “The Slave Market” (circa 1867), one of Gérôme’s best and most famous paintings, which shows a slave woman having her teeth inspected by some prospective buyers. It depicts a degrading scene, the woman reduced to a piece of property. Nothing about Ms. Essaydi’s photographic copy changes this.

In the exhibition catalog, Nick Capasso, the show’s curator, argues that Ms. Essaydi presents us with images of women who are “empowered.” That’s the party line on these photographs. Sometimes I think it makes sense, as with “Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque,” but at other times it just doesn’t work. I don’t see how there can be anything empowering about images of women as sex slaves.

No doubt the use of text on the images is meant to give these women a voice, to show them as more than just passive bodies. But given that the text is mostly illegible, it becomes just another decorative element enhancing the aesthetic appeal of what are essentially clichéd images of the East seen through the lens of Western desire.

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