Woman in a hijab poses with daughter on her lap.

Boushra Almutawakel, Mother, Daughter, Doll series, 2010

Constructing Identities: Stories We Thought We Knew

The images in the exhibition She Who Tells a Story not only are made by women with roots in Iran and the Arab world, but are about the people, landscapes, and cultures of the region. Many of the photographers here explore questions of identity through an evolving and shifting set of narratives that must be understood as a response to Orientalism. Historically, “Orientalism” has referred to artistic or literary depictions by European or American artists and writers of the East, including Middle Eastern, North African, and Eastern cultures. In his pioneering study Orientalism (1978), the Palestinian-born scholar Edward Said argued that Orientalism aligns Western romanticized visions of the region with the goals of European and American colonialism and imperialism; it is a discourse of power, presenting the “Orient” as culturally inferior. Since the appearance of Said’s provocative study, questions surrounding imagery of Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian cultures have been vigorously reconsidered and debated. Regardless of the opinions expressed in these sometimes contentious conversations, Orientalism, and, more specifically, Orientalist painting, is indisputably fundamental to the region’s historical visual representation.[1]

Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon 2010
Rania Matar, Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons Gallery, Boston.

Concerning the related issue of gender-based power relations reflected in the portrayal of Middle Eastern women, the Iraqi-born artist Jananne Al-Ani comments particularly on the representation of the veil: “Debate around the veil is one of the remaining subjects which persistently invokes the tired and clichéd binaries of East/West, black/white, male/female.”[2] In her writings, Al-Ani uses the fundamental, triangulated relationship between the photographer, stage, and actors to examine historical work with new eyes.[3] In contemporary art practice in the 1990s, both Al-Ani and the Iranian-born Shirin Neshat simplified this triangulation by staging themselves as performers in mises-en-scène that challenge the historically male-dominated representation of Middle Eastern women. Their work, historical now itself, includes Neshat’s series Women of Allah and Al-Ani’s diptych of photographs of female members of her family. By the early 2000s, the Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi had embarked on an oeuvre that likewise questioned Orientalism.

These three artists, each in her distinctive way, effected far-reaching changes in the history of visual representation and the perception of Orientalist stereotypes. Despite their current geographic distance from their native countries, Neshat, Al-Ani, and Essaydi all produce work that is inspired, directly and indirectly, by the Middle East.[4] Considering and reconsidering Orientalist iconography seems, in fact, particularly compelling for these women, who embody an exilic, expatriate, or bicultural identity.[5]

Left: Shirin Neshat, Untitled, 1996, © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Neshat’s series Women of Allah (1993–97) was the outcome of a visit the photographer made to her native Iran fifteen years after the Iranian Revolution and evokes the role that women played in the upheaval. These portraits of female warriors bearing arms, with the words of contemporary Iranian female writers inscribed across their faces and hands, address the paradoxes of “female Islamic militancy” and the precariousness of women’s place in Iranian society.[6] Combining the elements of the veil, the gun, the text, and the gaze, Neshat’s poetic portraits gained her immediate attention on the contemporary art scene. Frequently deploying the authority of unwavering eye contact, the carefully crafted images break down Orientalist tropes of female submission by showing women’s empowerment in the face of opposition. In one untitled image, words written on a woman’s hand raised to her mouth give her a voice despite her closed lips. Speechless portrays a gun barrel beside a woman’s cheek, pointing directly at the viewer. I Am Its Secret shows a veiled woman whose almond-shaped eyes gaze intensely at the viewer amid concentric circles of calligraphy that make her face into a target. In Women of Allah, the conjoining of guns, the female figure, and Farsi writing makes the body into a battleground for the confrontation of politics and language. The series represented a turning point in the recent history of representation as well as debates about the veil, and inspired new and divergent artistic explorations by other photographers of the region.[7]

Around the same time, Al-Ani questioned the perception of historical narratives and the representation of the “Oriental” woman, with a particular consideration of the photographic construction of identity through anthropological and ethnographic photography. In her 1996 diptych of two large-format prints, she used herself and the other women in her family to show a progression in veiling. Standing between the two prints installed face-to-face, the viewer is trapped between the women’s unblinking stares. Al-Ani emphasizes the power of lens-based media—combining forces with physical space—to manipulate the viewer, while exposing Orientalist myths and the “Orientalizing” gaze. This concern with the layering and concealment of identities by the hijab, which raged in the 1990s, is now seen as passé by many artists based in Iran and the Arab world today. Others are finding new, provocative ways of representing both the veil and its implications, often within a critical analysis of Orientalism.

L Assia
Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY. Yezerski and Miller Gallery, Boston.

Such artists include Lalla Essaydi, who, like Neshat, associates Islamic calligraphy—a sacred and generally male art form—with women’s bodies to suggest the complexity of gender roles within Islamic culture. While Neshat writes text on the printed surface of her photographs, Essaydi applies henna calligraphy directly onto her models, their drapery, and their surroundings before photographing the scene. For Essaydi, the presence of text is related to the dominance of the word in Islam: “The word is powerful in our culture because we don’t [visually] portray God; our religion is based on the book, and, so, everything is based on the word. That is why a lot of [Muslim] artists work with writing.”[8] In her series Converging Territories (2003–4), calligraphy fills the image, covering the skin and robes of the women and the wall behind them. Elsewhere, as in Harem # 1, Essaydi makes reference to features of Orientalist painting, such as the nineteenth-century odalisque pose or the containment of women within beautifully carved walls of architecture. Here the disparity between the grandeur of the Moroccan architecture and the modest scale of the recess the woman occupies suggests isolation and gendered spatiality; the figure, wrapped in fabric designed by the artist, blends almost entirely with her “habitat.”

Such echoes of Orientalism permeate much of the visual representation of the Middle East today, raising questions about insider-versus-outsider and reciprocal stereotyping. From the staged portrait photographs of the nineteenth century to contemporary staged photography, these images offer viewers the possibility of revising preconceived notions.

Like Neshat’s and Al-Ani’s work from the 1990s, the iconic series Qajar (1998) by the Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian was a point of departure for many contemporary photographers. These humorous pastiches set up a crosscultural and cross-temporal encounter between a nineteenth-century Persian photographer’s European-influenced backdrop and Ghadirian’s contemporary studio props. Ghadirian juxtaposes young women in traditional Iranian dress with what she describes as “modern” objects, such as boom boxes, musical instruments, and makeup. The incongruity between the subjects and their attributes suggests a tension between tradition and modernity and between restriction and freedom within the public and private realms. In one image, the object is the regularly banned newspaper Hamshahri, for which Ghadirian and her husband once worked; in another, it is a mirror reflecting foreign and banned books, an allusion to the censorship and compromised communication that limited experience in Iran in the 1990s. Now aided by the Internet, Iranians have greater access to the outside world, but until the late 1990s, life was more circumscribed; Ghadirian recalls that specific activities such as playing or listening to music in public, having parties, and wearing makeup were taboo.

mother daughter doll
Boushra Almutawakel, Mother, Daughter, Doll series, 2010, © Boushra Almutawakel. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ghadirian’s staged portraits of the 1990s laid a conceptual and aesthetic foundation for investigations by later photographers into issues of identity and the realities of being a female Iranian, or Arab, artist. The Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel’s series Mother, Daughter, Doll (2010) challenges the rise of religious extremism, increasingly pervasive in Yemen and neighboring countries, which calls for the public concealment of women’s, and even young girls’, bodies. These staged portraits do not denounce the hijab, but visually protest the covering of young females and the trend toward black clothing and covering, particularly the more extensive niqab.[9] The fading of the smiles of mother and daughter corresponds to the incremental disappearance of their colorful clothing from one picture to the next; the series ends with the image of an empty pedestal draped in black fabric—mother, daughter, and doll are completely eliminated. Almutawakel uses the veil as a visual device to challenge current social trends and explore the complexities of public appearance, creating this profound statement about the erasure of the individual through dress.

In the intimate portraits that constitute Lebanese-born Rania Matar’s series A Girl and Her Room (2011), young women pose comfortably in their bedrooms—their personal havens—in both the Middle East and the United States. Personal and poetic, this documentary exploration of female identity and belongings discloses both regional and more universal human characteristics.

Almutawakel and Matar offer sensitive perspectives on the public and private lives of women, in particular, young women. Their work represents two photographic approaches to the themes of visibility and invisibility, and the inner and outer awareness of self, one highly staged by the artist and the other arranged in an intimate collaboration between the artist and subject.

Stephanie, Beirut, Lebanon 2010
Rania Matar, Stephanie, Beirut, Lebanon, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons Gallery, Boston.

Other photographers react to more public social and political situations inside or outside their country of origin. The series Listen (2010) by Newsha Tavakolian comprises portraits of professional singers who, as women, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to perform in public or to record CDs in their native country of Iran.[10] Metaphors of music, voice, and expression are also found in Ghadirian’s Qajar series and in a powerful still called Mystified from Neshat’s film Turbulent, which shows a female singer with a microphone.

Tavakolian’s singers do not appear with microphones, although each is clearly caught mid-song. The photographer’s passion for these women’s stories inspired her to create imaginary photographic CD covers that would represent the character of each performer. The accompanying video shows the women emotionally mouthing unheard words, suggesting the idea of an imposed silence. As a former photojournalist, Tavakolian is aware of perceived—and sometimes real—obstacles to photographing in public in Iran, and has turned to fine-art photography to address social issues. Her childhood dream was to be a singer, and today her photography provides her, along with her subjects, with an eloquent voice.

Tavakolian represents a generation of empowered, young, postrevolutionary Iranian photographers who are intimately attached to their national identity and are finding ways to creatively pursue their artistic expression. Neshat represents a generation of artists born before the revolution who have left the country, yet continue to draw on their cultural heritage. In her series Book of Kings (2012), whose title is translated from that of the thousand-year-old Persian poem Shahnameh, Neshat employs language as forcefully as she did in Women of Allah. While the epic poem tells of the heroic deeds of former rulers, the photographic series is inspired by the stories of contemporary participants in the Arab Spring and Iranian protesters representing the Iranian Green Movement in 2009. Book of Kings is a metaphorical and lyrical ode to patriotism, nationalism, politics, history, revolt, and heroism in the past and present.


For discussion of the Orientalist debate in the context of contemporary art in the Middle East, see the appendix in Sloman, ed., Contemporary Art in the Middle East, which includes essays by scholar Zachary Lockman and interviews with significant figures in the contemporary art world. For a discussion of the representation of women in historically unequal power relationships, see Sarah Graham-Brown’s comprehensive study Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

[2] Jananne Al-Ani, “Acting Out,” in David A. Bailey and Gilane Tawadros, eds., Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art, exh. cat. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 93.

[3] See ibid., 106. Al-Ani was co-curator of the exhibition Veil, which was organized by the Institute of International Visual Arts in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation and held in Walsall, Liverpool, and Oxford, U.K., in 2003–4. In conversation, the artist has further pointed out that the veil is not unique to Muslim culture and appears widely in the representations of many others, including Christianity. See also ibid., 18.

[4] Both Neshat and Essaydi emigrated to the United States, and the Iraqi-Irish Al-Ani lives in London. Other photographers in She Who Tells a Story (Rania Matar, Tanya Habjouqa, Boushra Almutawakel, and Nermine Hammam) have also lived for significant periods of time in other cultures.

[5] Neshat and Al-Ani have significantly changed their artistic orientation since the 1990s, while Essaydi’s work has remained in constant dialogue with the history of visual Orientalism.

[6] See Kelly Baum, “Art, Precarity, and Biopolitics,” in Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin, eds., The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art, 2012), 45.

[7] As the curators David A. Bailey and Gilane Tawadros point out, “in some ways, Neshat’s works can be seen as protagonists entering the stage on which the veil and veiling have been embroiled in the history of the struggle against colonialism and, more recently neo-colonialism.” Bailey and Tawadros, Veil, 35.

[8] Lalla Essaydi, interview with the author, New York, September 28, 2012, transcription.

[9] It is important to note that while the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, recommends modesty, it does not require the hijab. The doctrine that women cover themselves is related to an interpretation of the hadith, sacred texts written after the Quran. The hijab is not systematically imposed on Muslim women; for some, it reflects a personal religious choice, and for others, an aesthetic preference. Almutawakel was inspired by a parallel that Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi has drawn between the wearing of makeup and headscarves.

[10] On this issue, see Ramin Sadighi, “La musique et la loi,” art press 2, no. 17 (May–July 2010): 102.

She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World was on view at Carnegie Museum of Art from May 30 to September 28, 2015.

The text of this essay is excerpted from the book She Who Tells a Story, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2013.