Beyond the veil

Women's photographs tell stories from Iran and the Arab world

A smiling woman sits with her daughter on her knee, a baby doll in a bright fuchsia dress poised on the little girl's lap. The woman wears a cream-colored head scarf or hijab, her dark hair peeking out, while her daughter's wavy locks fall freely to her shoulders.

This is the first frame of "Mother, Daughter, Doll," a series of nine photographs shot by Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel in 2010. In the following frame, the woman's smile is dimmer, her hair covered more thoroughly by a dark-hued scarf. Her plaid coat has been exchanged for a black one; her daughter sits more rigidly, her hair partially obscured by a cloth. Even the doll's dress has been replaced by a more modest one. So the covering up of these three figures progresses, frame after frame, until in the penultimate image they're shrouded entirely in black, their eyes peeking out from behind the fine mesh of their traditional niqāb veils. In the ninth and final shot, they've disappeared entirely.

"Mother, Daughter, Doll" is one of 81 photographic works now on view at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center as part of "She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World." An exhibition curated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it's the first of its kind in the United States: a collection of images of women, by women from across a wide range of Middle Eastern countries. Its Stanford appearance marks its only West Coast showing.

As Almutawakel's work suggests, the place of women in their respective cultures is a recurring theme in this exhibition. Yet rather than confirming the Western stereotype of the veiled woman as one who lacks freedom or agency, these artists overturn such assumptions, capturing instead a much richer and more nuanced picture of the role of women in both public and private spheres.

"After Sept. 11, I was compelled to create images of the veil, particularly since Muslims, their beliefs and way of life had taken international center stage," Almutawakel explained in a recent email. "I wanted to be careful not to fuel widespread negative stereotypes, especially the notion that women who wear the hijab are weak, oppressed, ignorant and backwards."

The exhibition features work by 12 artists shot almost exclusively over the past decade and is organized around three major themes: Deconstructing Orientalism, Constructing Identities and New Documentary. The majority of works take as their subject women and the female sphere, from Shirin Neshat's portraits of women whose bodies are covered in Persian script -- symbolizing the role of women in the Arab Spring uprisings -- to Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian's close-up shots of inanimate objects, which appear as serene as still-life paintings until the eye settles on the evidence of violence: the grenade in the fruit bowl, bullets scattered among lipsticks and eyeliners. In among the still photography are video installations by Iranian Newsha Tavakolian. "Listen" features silent footage of professional female singers who are forbidden by Islamic tenets to perform in public.

Some of the works in this collection take in the devastation of armed conflict and the upheaval of revolution. Others focus on daily life, finding in the quotidian both beauty and universality, and reminding viewers that life goes on, even in the midst of chaos.

Colleen Stockmann, assistant curator for special projects at the Cantor, said it's the intimacy of these photographs she finds most arresting.

"When it comes to the Middle East, we're so inundated with images of war, conflict and folks in armed dress that we rarely see a more personalized and tender look at ordinary people, their families and their everyday lives," Stockmann noted, rattling off the images from the show that stick with her: a girl on a swing, women taking selfies, teenage girls in their bedrooms. Furthermore, she added, the artists who directly address themes of war and conflict do so not in dramatic or sensational style, but in a way that's "poetic -- in a quiet manner that reflects how ingrained (war) has become."

One might expect photographs from politically volatile countries including Iraq, Egypt and Israel to be heavy in tone, yet many of these works convey a sense of humor while simultaneously addressing serious social issues. For example, Stockmann noted, Almutawakel's "Woman, Daughter, Doll" is "a powerful series about visibility and agency," yet "there's a bit of levity to it -- to the way she's playing with exposure and vulnerability."

A playful spirit is certainly evident in the work of Iranian photographer Goshar Dashti, whose 2008 series "Today's Life and War" features a young couple who go about their lives against a backdrop of destruction. In one shot, they sit side by side in the bombed-out shell of a car festooned with wedding garlands; a military tank looms in the background. In another image, they hang laundry on loops of barbed wire.

"I was born in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, and the first steps of my childhood were during the bloody Iran-Iraq war," explained Dashti in an email interview. "The profound impact that war has had on my life and my generation has remained until today." At the same time, she observed, "War and life are inseparable from each other." As an artist, she said, she hopes to convey the strange mixture of "violence, war memories, happiness and joy" that make up her life experience.

The distance between the assumptions of Western viewers and the actual experiences of Middle Eastern women is a crucial one. In grouping together works from such a wide range of countries and cultures, "She Who Tells a Story" runs the risk of being seen as reductive. That's a danger Stockmann and other curators have acknowledged, and one they believe is avoidable through a close look at the works themselves.

"There are a lot of very specific and different approaches being taken, and artists from different areas addressing very different religious and political situations," Stockmann said. "I don't know of another show that's even tried to cover work from such a broad region in this way." The intention, she said, is for viewers to approach each image as a formal photographic work: to appreciate the specificity of each image and to consider it in its own context, rather than to see all 81 works as representing a single movement or message.

Though the 12 artists represented in "She Who Tells a Story" are all adult women, some of the subjects are younger. In Rania Matar's series, "A Girl and Her Room," the photographer takes us inside the bedrooms of teenage girls in Lebanon, offering rare glimpses into these private spheres. A Lebanese-born artist now living in Massachusetts, Matar has shot teenage girls in both the U.S. and Lebanon, and said her interest is in capturing the universal experience of adolescence. "At the core, these girls are all going through the same emotions at the onset of adulthood," she said. "In your teenage years, you make one decision and it alters your life, and that's true whether you're growing up in a refugee camp or in the upper class in Beirut or Boston."

Of all the stories this exhibition tells, the one that spans countries and cultures is that of the agency of the female artist. Every work in the show serves as a testament to the woman who stood behind the lens, countering Western stereotypes and sensational media representations by offering her own distinct, specific point of view.

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

Where: Cantor Art Center, 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford

When: Through May 4. Gallery hours: Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Gallery talk Thursday, March 5, 12:15 p.m. Artist panel Thursday, March 19, 5:30 p.m. Multimedia presentation Thursday, April 30, 5:30 p.m. Exhibition tours beginning Feb. 5: Thursday, 12:15 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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