She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World

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Newsha Tavakolian, Don’t Forget This Is not for You (for Sahar Lofti), 2010. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Yemeni-born Boushra Almutawakel poses with her daughter and the child’s doll wearing a stylish yellow headscarf smartly complementing her plaid suit. Eight succeeding photographs later all three have been engulfed by full-length black niqabs until they completely disappear from the frame. Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian combines photographs and video to protest extreme Islamic laws forbidding women from singing alone in public or making recordings. Her clever juxtaposition of six imaginary cd covers picturing a resolute chador-clad woman in public, against six silent video performances, is painfully expressive. Rana El Nemr photographs middle-class women riding the Cairo metro. Pictured alone, weary, or lost in thought, these women are a long way from the front-page photographs of car-bombings and street protests that, although newsworthy, skew our perception of everyday life in the Arab world. In this insightful new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through January 12, 12 contemporary Arab artists, all women, use a variety of photographic styles, from staged narratives to traditional documentary, to debunk such western stereotypes. It couldn’t be timelier.

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Gohar Dashti, Untitled #2, 2008. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Kristen Gresh, MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs, has assembled a group of female artists who, she says, represent the strongest photography coming out of this part of the world, and the evidence is abundant in the 100 photographs and two videos on view. Shadi Ghadirian stages informal domestic scenes with disarming connotations like the way a colorful headscarf casually shares a coat rack with a combat helmet or a pair of red highheels is shown toe-to-toe with bloodstained field boots. Gohar Dashti goes even further on the home front, enacting everyday routines in a desolate battlefield. A young couple hangs their laundry on a tangle of barbed wire or drinks morning tea in front of a tank poised to strike. 

Twenty-five years ago Edward Said unveiled myriad European and American biases toward the Arab world in his seminal text Orientalism. This exhibition shows all the ways reconsideration is still required.