Joumana El Alaoui

The exhibition She Who Tells a Story, featuring the work of women photographers from several Arab countries and Iran, is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA until September 28th. The curator, Kristen Gersh, saw an opportunity to secede from typical portrayals of Middle Eastern women, offering a new view on the social and political issues of the region from the perspective of female artists rather than mainstream media. While quite rich, the exhibition does not succeed in establishing a new view nor challenging the existing one. Although most of the artists featured have eclectic work engaging a variety of social and political topics, many of the pieces chosen for the exhibition focus on women’s oppression. Because the captions gave little political, social or historical context, it was difficult for visitors to understand that although a woman from Iran wearing the hijab looks the same as a woman in Gaza, their daily life and contexts are different. 

Halfway through the exhibition, there is a wall on which visitors are invited to comment on the exhibition. Comments are written on pieces of paper topped with an image of a featured work. Some commenters expressed that American women should be happy to have the freedom they have. I also saw “this is a problem in France too now” - “this” meaning Islam, or maybe the hijab. A few expressed their solidarity with the artists and the joy they felt to have access to the work of women from that region.  There were also comments from hijab-wearing women, who apparently felt the need to justify their choices and explain that they were not oppressed. The majority of commenters seemed blinded by the veils that the subjects wore.

The focus on women and the veil is so preeminent in the exhibition that two individuals beside me who were viewing the work of Rania Matar (portraying young women wearing shorts in their bedrooms with Marilyn Monroe posters on pink walls), wondered aloud if it was a different exhibition - and they weren’t the only ones. The exhibition distorts the variety of each of these artists’ bodies of work by limiting the pieces to those focusing on female power; this distortion is only exacerbated by the perceptions of the commenting viewers.

Lalla Essaydi, originally from Morocco, explains in a statement on her website that she feels uncomfortable being a voice for all Arab women, and wishes only to illustrate a personal vision. Essaydi’s work at the exhibition was from her Harem series; the images featured calligraphy written in henna on women’s bodies. The calligraphy, traditionally seen as a male craft, covers the women yet leaves a written testimony. The idea of private space that the harem evokes is still very present in Morocco, and women continue to navigate their position in the public sphere. Essaydi, however, explains that it would be wrong to pigeonhole her as “oppressed”, because it oversimplifies her and her work. She photographs women with Orientalist sets to address male fantasies about the “Oriental woman”. Essaydi states “[…] my work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem. Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists––in other words as a voyeuristic tradition.” 

Despite the excessive focus on female oppression in the exhibition, other themes such as war and conflict also emerge. Gohar Dashit’s work features commonplace events amid disaster, such as a couple eating in front of a tank, or newlyweds in a bullet-riddled car. Jerusalem native Rula Halawani’s photographs look as if they were taken with night vision goggles, and show Israeli tanks surrounded by dead bodies.  Oddly enough, the only comments left by visitors about these deaths were written in Arabic, usually the shahada, or Muslim profession of faith. Rula’s work also features objects that could be found in Palestinian homes before the Nakba, like house keys, a symbol of the Palestinian right of return. Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa has photographed Palestinian and Israeli drag queens in Jerusalem, and young women in Gaza and the West Bank, though only her Gaza images were included in the exhibition. One photograph shows young girls on a boat trying to enjoy the sea. The caption indicates that they could not go further than 6 miles because of Israeli restrictions. However, visitor comments focused not on this injustice, but on what the girls were wearing.

Newsha Tavakolian’s work re-creates album covers of Iranian female singers, imagining how they would look if the singers were allowed to produce their work in Iran. Tavakolian covered the current war in Iraq with pictures of Kurdish women fighting ISIS and Yazidi women who survived ISIS incursions. Her depiction of Kurdish women differs from the work of others who try to typecast these women, either as exceptions to the way Kurdish women are normally treated in their societies or as glamorous female warriors. Unfortunately, her work on the Yazidi resistance was not included in this exhibition. Tavakolian has faced curatorially imposed limitations before, when she was nominated for the Carmignac photojournalism award. Following her refusal to change the title of her exhibition from Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album to the more politically loaded The Lost Generation, Carmignac falsely stated that Tavakolian had to withdraw from the competition because of pressure from the Iranian government.

Only the work of Bushra Almutawakil from Yemen deals explicitly with the veil. She mentions in interviews that she does not wish to add to the negative stereotypes about women who wear the veil, but she to address the growing belief in her country that the more a woman covers, the better.  
If the situation were reversed and an exhibition were curated in Beirut or Rabat, it is unlikely that the curator would lump together a few photographers from the United States and call it an exhibition about American women. Surely there must be a better way to deliver complexity without reducing the work of 12 artists to a geographic location.

Joumana El Alaoui is a freelance writer and programmer based in Pittsburgh. She holds a Master's degree in International Political Economy from the University of Pittsburgh. Twitter: @Joumanaela

Feature Image: from Today's Life and War by Gohar Dashit

Image 2: Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon 2010 from A Girl and Her Room by Rania Matar. 

Image 3: from the Book of Kings series by Shirin Neshat.