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At the entry to “The Middle East Revealed: A Female Perspective”, the fascinating new group show at Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC, there is a large color portrait of a modern Arab woman. She is wearing a headscarf and a slight smile, like a cat who swallowed a canary. Is she daring the authorities, or perhaps challenging Western preconceptions? Her headscarf is an American flag.
This exhibition features four contemporary Middle Eastern photographers whose work is being shown for the first time in NY, as well as vintage photographs by the first female photojournalist, American Margaret Bourke-White, taken in Syria on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1940. Called “Maggie the Indestructible” by staffers at LIFE, Bourke-White’s images largely chronicle the young republic’s defensive preparations against the Germans in desert towns near Damascus. Tribal and military garb comingle in various troop formations and informal gatherings; women and children are seen incidentally in street scenes of everyday life. Both the images and the prints evoke a distant time.
About 60 years later, from 1999-2003, Reem Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia) offers her photographic insights from the Hajj, an annual four-day pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. The granddaughter of the late King Faisal, she possesses a lovely sense of composition and, I would guess, increased access to Saudi landmarks. Her two enormous gelatin silver prints give us a bird’s eye view of the immense scale of this emblematic religious event. Faisal’s image of women and children gathered in a Syrian public plaza in 2006 reveal the un-posed human moments to which Bourke-White likely lacked access.
The other contemporary photographers in this exhibit place the roles of women and girls front and center in their work. In a provocative series of nine color prints, Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen) tracks the progression of a mother, daughter and her doll seated together and smiling in colorful, Western-style street clothes. In each subsequent image, their expressions dull as their clothing grows ever more concealing and dark, until all three appear somberly veiled in black. In the stultifying final photograph, the three sitters are altogether absent, with only the black studio set remaining. But don’t jump to an American conclusion too fast. Almutawakel intends this stunning series to be a commentary not only on the way in which strict religious laws can be negating to women but also on the dangers of falling prey to negative Western stereotypes of the unique individuals who wear the veil. It cuts both ways, a convincing demonstration of how images can be subtler and more audacious than words.
Shadi Ghadirian (Iran) likewise uses symbolism to highlight the inherent dualities of a modern woman living in a country with traditional religious rules. In her series “Qajar” (the ruling Persian dynasty, 1794-1925), Ghadirian reconstructs the atmosphere of that dynastic era by fashioning antiquated painted backdrops, dressing her models in clothing from the turn of the 20th century and shooting in B&W. But in each photograph, the woman holds an object that is considered to be contraband under sharia, the strict moral and religious codes of Islamic law. The contrast between old and new illustrates the discordancy of modern life in Iran, the strangeness of a woman straddling two eras. Through the use of warm tones, traditional clothing and her models’ deadpan expressions (when not obscured by veils), Ghadirian’s photographs deliver their punch with a velvet glove.
Rania Matar, an American citizen who was born and raised in Lebanon, is exhibiting photographs of Middle Eastern teenagers from her series “A Girl and Her Room”, as well as two preteens from her series “L’Enfant-Femme”. Matar’s work is more personal than political, exploring the natural stages in every girl’s life. Her bold colors and composition are a fitting backdrop for both the exuberance and turmoil common to the teen years, complemented by expressions and body language that broadcast their precarious vulnerability. She photographs the girls on their home territory and, although we may be surprised at the level of Western influence in their lives, the biggest revelation is how similar the girls seem to us. Matar’s gift is really that she enables us to recognize ourselves in them. If only we could accomplish that on a global scale, just think what might happen.
The images of the four contemporary photographers in this show are, in one way or another, aimed at the realization that people fundamentally hold the same desire for meaning and acceptance in their lives. As humans, we naturally understand struggles with issues of identity. As Americans, we should be able to empathize with the presence of political and religious restrictions. These struggles led to the birth of our nation, to the rights Western women have gained and to those we are still seeking. The creative expressions of these photographers educate and enlighten as only art can, offering greater understanding, our most promising precursor to progress.
This exhibit will run until August 30, 2014. For more information, go to: http://www.howardgreenberg.com/#home
Feature image: “Andrea, Beirut, Lebanon, 2010”, chromogenic print by Rania Matar (Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY)