Photographs Echo The Voices Of Middle-Eastern Women

Jeannine Abusharkh
Staff Writer

Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center has curated a comprehensive collection of photographs and videos from Iran and the Arab world in “She Who Tells a Story.” Originally organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the exhibition features the work of twelve female artists who examine themes of gender roles, religion, war, and traditionalism.

In the 81 works on display, the female photographers capture life in war, poverty, and the oppression that many women in the Middle East deal with everyday. The works from Rula Halawani show graphic scenes of war in the Palestinian Territories. She captures life in occupation—tanks on the move, buildings in rubble, and grieving mothers—using a technique that obscures the time to create stark and haunting images. Nermine Hammam’s series, “Cairo Year One” depicts the January 2011 uprising in Egypt and its aftermath. The multimedia pieces from Hammam embed photographs of soldiers in Tahrir Square within peaceful postcard landscapes from her personal collection.

Issues regarding female identity are prevalent in many of the photos. Shadi Ghadirian’s early works focus on the subject of identity. Her eight prints in the series “Qajar” juxtaposes women in traditional dress with objects that are forbidden in conservative life—sunglasses, boom boxes, and musical instruments—hinting to the tension between traditionalism and modernism in public and private life. Issues of freedom of identity and expression were further explored in the works from Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s series “Mother, Daughter, Doll.” Her series of nine staged photographs of a mother holding her daughter and a toy doll looks at issues of the veil in relation to women being visible to the social world. The veil is a symbol of both religious tradition and female suppression in this series.

Lebanese artist Rania Matar’s series depicts six portraits of young women in their bedrooms surrounded by their belongings. The bedroom is a symbolic setting where the young women can just be themselves without the scrutiny and restriction from the outside world. Each bedroom presents a different personality, with one young women lying on her bed with a sketchbook and another girl surrounded by her makeup and hair products.

Another highlight of the exhibit is Lalla Essaydi of Morocco. She takes a feminist stance in her photographs, which critique how Middle Eastern women are often confined by privacy rules and the boundaries in the new post-revolutionary era that followed demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that began in 2010. Essaydi’s triptych “Bullets Revisited #3” (2012), is the most expansive work in the exhibition, standing at 5 ½ feet by 12 1/2 feet. Her work combines iconography from 19th-century Orientalist paintings and the sacred Islamic art form of calligraphy (which is often inaccessible to women). This piece explores the complexities of gender roles in the Arab world. The woman in the triptych is shown dressed in an ornate golden gown made of bullet shells while also lying on a bed of bullet shells. This image provides insight into the life of a woman overwhelmed by the powers of war.

Each of the photographers captures the stories of women differently. From simple depictions of daily life in Iran and the Arab World to graphic images of war, “She Who Tells a Story” truly critiques a life often misunderstood from the media and overpowered by a male dominated society.

Photo courtesy of Nureen Khadr/Foghorn

“She Who Tells A Story”
The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.
Now until May 4th
Wednesday–Monday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m.
Free admission

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