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Fantastical images of Muslim women once ignited the exotic fantasies of the Western world, wrought from tales like that of legendary Queen Scheherazade. To escape death at the hands of her husband, Scheherazade would weave a new cliffhanger each night until dawn, keeping him enthralled enough to delay her murder—a fate suffered by 1,000 wives before her.
Scheherazade as a symbolic heroine, especially in Persian culture, casts a long shadow over “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World,” now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The exhibition is essentially a survey of a trend that emerged in the early 1990s in which Muslim women artists co-opted Muslim women’s images in photographs to subvert prevailing stereotypes and confront restrictive social conditions. The storytellers themselves, 12 photographers from Iran and Arab countries, are the proverbial Scheherazades of their time, presenting performative reclamations of the female body not seen this powerfully since second-wave feminist art.
That reference to what can be recognized as feminist art—performance, the body, divesting representation of its power—is present in the work of hybrid-identity artists like Shirin Neshat. Her work is considered the genesis of art-world interest in the examination of Muslim female identity through photography. Later artists, including Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, have adapted Neshat’s signature veil-appropriation and the use of calligraphy. But Essaydi’s newest work, elaborately staged polyptychs that replace the ornate tile and textile backdrops of her “harem” settings with patterns of gold bullets, also allude to Islamophobia as the new Orientalism.
It’s not uncommon for artists based in the U.S. to address space and identity, but similar strategies are present in the photographs of Shadi Ghadirian, who has never worked outside of Iran. Her “Qajar” series, named in reference to the ruling dynasty under whose leadership colonization became a threat, features studio portraits of women in various forms of hijab. But in a humorous and rebellious twist, the women appear nonchalant as they look straight at the viewer, holding a can of Pepsi or reading a banned Iranian newspaper—a staged image generated for colonial tourists eager to collect postcards of exotic Persian women. Ghadirian’s work consistently reveals the artifice of those early Orientalist images, even if a contemporary critique of the U.S. or Iran is left ambiguous.
More overt critiques are present in the work of a promising new Iranian photographer, Newsha Tavakolian, who addresses the prohibition against women performing in public or recording vocals. Bust-length portraits of women singing before illuminated, sequined curtains recall an era of television before the Islamic state. Tavakolian animates the images in silent videos as a logical progression, and her investigation is completed with staged album covers for make-believe female performers. It’s an issue Neshat famously gave focus to in her video Turbulent, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1998. Jordanian Tanya Habjouqa’s “Women of Gaza” series is perhaps more defiant, showing women in pleasurable activities like a picnic or a boat ride, daring to enjoy life under politically oppressive circumstances.
With intense color, Rania Matar’s environmental portraits of young Lebanese women are the most profound in the exhibition. Her prints are large, and she takes photographs from angles that produce spaces that appear more cavernous than they actually are, rendering newly independent young women in their first homes. These women are in that heartbreaking stage of awkward youth, poised and excited to assert an identity not yet formed, unaware of what lies ahead. The struggle to maintain that identity, even as it reveals itself, against the limiting standards of beauty and sociopolitical realities is a struggle that knows no cultural bound. The murderous king eventually does fall in love with Scheherazade—for her creativity, her inventiveness, and her mind. Maybe we shouldn’t dismiss medieval fictions or the power of a good story.
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