Between the gruesome poison gas attack in Syria and the deadly uprising in Egypt, the photos coming out of the Middle East in recent weeks have been quite disturbing. And sadly, this is nothing new.
That's why a new photography exhibit in Boston aims to reveal a lesser known side of this conflicted region — its vibrant culture as seen through the eyes of women. The show, She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 12, 2014.
"The exhibit puts art and culture before politics and conflict," curator Kristen Gresh said in a phone interview.
Women of Gaza 3. 2009. By Tanya Habjouqa. (Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery.)
"Putting these photos on a wall shows what a prolific and amazing art scene they have that is otherwise easily ignored or unrepresented because of everything that is shouting louder," she said.
Gresh has spent nearly a decade researching contemporary work by Arab photographers. The 37-year-old spent many years in Paris, a city full of photographers from North Africa and the Middle East. "I made lots of exciting discoveries," she said. "Shortly after my arrival at the MFA, I proposed this show. And some of the strongest work coming out of the Arab world happen to be by women."
Last fall, Gresh visited parts of Europe, Egypt, and Jordan to see the photographers' work in person. "When I started the show, I thought I'd feature six to eight photographers. Then eight to 10. In the end, in the 11th hour, I had to tell myself, 'I'm going to stop at 12.' It just sort of kept going." The final exhibit includes about 100 works.
Metro #7. 2003. By Rana El Nemr. (Reproduced with permission. Courtesy of the artist.)
Stephanie, Beirut, Lebanon. 2010. By Rania Matar. (©Rania Matar. Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston.)
Some of the photos reveal quiet moments of daily life — hijab-clad women riding the metro, a teenager sitting among her stuffed animals in her room.
But many of the photographers have been influenced by and use their images to comment on the region's ongoing deadly conflicts.
One large-scale work (below) by Moroccan-born Lalla Assia Essaydi is made entirely of silver and gold bullet casings. The woman in the photo is lying on her back, her gaze angled toward the camera. On first look, one might mistake her for a corpse. "It's a direct reaction to the Arab Spring," Gresh said. "It's speaking to the fear of growing restrictions on women."
Bullet Revisited #3. 2012. By Lalla Assia Essaydi. (Reproduced with permission. Courtesy of Miller Yezerski Gallery Boston; Edwynn Houk Gallery New York.)
In January 2011, Egyptian artist Nermine Hammam was on the crowded streets around Cairo's Tahrir Square photographing the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The artist, who trained as a filmmaker, was especially drawn to the soldiers, who appeared surprisingly young despite their heavy artillery. In the resulting series, Hammam superimposed images of these young men with vintage postcards of idyllic scenery (below).
Dreamland I. 2011. By Nermine Hammam. (©Nermine Hammam. Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London.)
"By creating these compositions, she's underlining the juxtaposition of the youth and innocence of these young men," Gresh said. "But also with these candy colored scenes, she's making a statement about the media's coverage as well as the reaction outside of Egypt."
The exhibit shows work that your average American wouldn't otherwise see, even at a time when all eyes are on the Middle East. And whether the images depict scenes of the mundane or the politically poignant, they are undoubtedly conversation starters, which, Gresh said, is exactly the point. "I'm hoping the exhibit will open a cross-cultural dialogue," she said.
Mother, Daughter, Doll series. 2010. By Boushra Almutawakel. (©Boushra Almutawakel. Courtesy of the artist and East Wing Contemporary Gallery.)
All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston