This past Wednesday on the 6th of December, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the opening of a new special exhibit hosted by the Canadian War Museum, called “She Who Tells a Story – Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World.” The exhibit travelled to the War Museum from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where it was curated by Kristen Gresh. The exhibit featured the photographic work of twelve prominent contemporary female photographers who had roots in the Middle East. Each photographer captured images that reflected the lived experiences of women and girls in the Middle East within the context of war, the policing of bodies, and other unique factors which shape their daily lives. Gresh was in attendance to open the exhibit, and spoke about how her time in Cairo was what led her to the works and artists featured in the exhibit. Early in the exhibit itself, this story is featured:

“Working as a curator in Cairo and Paris, I discovered the exciting work of many contemporary photographers from the Arab world and Iran, and I found the strongest work was being made by women. As I was putting this exhibition together, one prominent Iranian artist warned me that focusing on a group of women photographers was ‘alarming’ because it would confirm the stereotype of Arab and Iranian women as ‘oppressed and powerless.’ On the contrary, the works on view do just the opposite – they challenge that viewpoint, beckoning us to confront our own preconceptions and to explore new cultural landscapes.” (1) – Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Curator of Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

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Gohar Dashti, from the series Today’s Life and War, 2008

The exhibit is broken into three main themes, although Gresh emphasized that many of the artists could not be contained within one specific theme, and that many of the pieces spoke to a multitude of ideas. The first theme is called Deconstructing Orientalism. Gresh highlighted in her speech that,

“These are artists…who are looking at the tradition of orientalism, such as 19th century paintings, that are presenting the orient in a very specific manner, and the photographers in ‘Deconstructing Orientalism’ are really turning this concept upside-down by staging themselves, by changing where the gaze is coming from, who’s gazing at who. So, “Deconstructing Orientalism” gives a sort of foundation for the show.”

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Shadi Ghadirian, from the series Qajar, 1998.

From here the exhibit moves into the theme of Constructing Identities. Gresh describes this section as being:

“[M]ade up of photographers who are using portraiture to tell different stories about the multiple identities that are in the Middle East. And one thing in the entire exhibition that I hope people will take away from it is that there are many, many different identities in the Middle East, and it is a region of the world that cannot be reduced into one specific ethnicity, or one specific territory, or one specific religion. And so, these photographers, for example in the ‘Constructing Identities,’ are each approaching identity in a different way; from the personal to the political, it includes religious identity, a universal identity, and each of the photographers are really bringing their own unique perspective and their own cultural background to their work. Throughout the ‘Constructing Identities’ you see a real range, as I said, of contemporary portraiture, and this group goes in tandem with the group ‘New Documentary.’ And I should say, none of these themes are strict themes in any way. Different photographers can enter into different themes. Certainly throughout the entire show we have themes of the visible and the invisible, the permissible and the forbidden, the spoken and the silent, and the prosaic and the horrific.” 

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Tanya Habjouqa, from the series Women of Gaza, 2009

This led to the third theme, which Gresh called New Documentary:

“In ‘New Documentary’ we see photographers who are representing specific personal, cultural or historical experiences. But it’s not straight documentary in any way; it’s very much artistic imagination combined with specifics of very specific contemporary stories…”

Overall the exhibit aims not only to display the work of important artists from this region, but to undermine the stereotypes and misunderstandings about people from the Middle East, as well as to show that this part of the world is richly unique and complex. Ultimately, the exhibit aims to try to shift Western perspectives and views about the Middle East and to complicate the way that we think about and view the people there.

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Shirin Neshat, from the series Book of Kings, 2012.

 

Much like its subjects, this exhibit cannot be adequately summed up or essentialized. I have no more knowledge about the countries or people from the Middle East than any other person. The fraction of knowledge that I do have has been shaped largely by the news, which only shows us images of extreme war, poverty, conflict and injustices. As such, I do not feel like it is my place or within my capacity to offer any kind of critique about the content of this exhibit, other than to say that I thought it was extremely well done, and that if you are able to find the time to go and see it, you absolutely should.

 

Instead, I thought I would feature two of my favourite pieces that I saw, in addition to the profiles of the artists that were displayed in the exhibits in order to show, rather than tell, exactly why an exhibit like this is so vital in our cultural spaces.

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Artist: Rula Halawani (Palestinian, born in 1964, lives in East Jerusalem).         “Halawani, a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, powerfully addresses the experience of destruction and displacement, as well as the nature of photographic media. To make these images of the 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank, she enlarged and printed negatives without reversing their values. The night-vision effect (like military imagery) obscures the specifics of time and place and increases dramatic intensity – tanks in action, grieving mothers and families in the ruble. Light passages among the ruins evoke fire, a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinian people. The thick black borders imitate the shape of a television screen, conveying Halawani’s criticism of the adequate media coverage of Palestinian suffering.”
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Artist: Boushra Alumtawakel (Born in Yemen in 1969, lives in Sana’a, Yemen and Paris).              “Alumtawakel uses the veil to challenge social trends to explore the complexities of public appearance. Religious extremism, increasingly pervasive in her native Yemen, calls for the public concealment of women’s, and even girls’, bodies. Rather than denounce the hijab (headscarf), these staged portraits visually protest the covering of young women and the trend toward black, particularly the more extensive niqab. The fading smiles of mother and daughter correspond to the disappearance of their colorful clothing from one picture to the next. the series ends with an image of an empty pedestal draped in black fabric – mother, daughter, and doll are completely eliminated, a statement about the erasure of the individual through dress.”

What struck me most about this exhibit is how important it is to have this display in the Canadian War Museum. In my experience visiting the War Museum throughout my time living in Ottawa, I have never associated it with being a museum that pushes the envelope, or is progressive in the nature of the content they exhibit. This exhibit flies in the face of this. It is diverse, sensitive, nuanced, feminist, and forces us (Western visitors) to confront our own ideas about a place and people that most of us know little about. I hope more than anything that the Canadian War Museum continues on this track with the exhibits that it brings in and curates.

She Who Tells a Story – Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World is at the Canadian War Museum from December 6, 2017 to March 4, 2018. For more information, or to buy your tickets, you can click here.

 

Footnotes:

  1. All quotations come either from the text of the exhibit, or a personal recording of the introductory speeches at the opening night event.
  2. A special thanks to Chris who accompanied me and took photographs of everything because I was a dummy and forgot to charge my phone before we left, even though I knew we were going to this event.

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