Twelve Women Take On Middle Eastern Culture With Photography

'She Who Tells a Story' brings untold passion to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Untitled, from the Women of Gaza series, 2009, Tanya Habjouqa. (Courtesy of MFA, Boston)

Untitled, from the Women of Gaza series, by Tanya Habjouqa, captures women in an aerobics class, taking advantage of the simplest of pleasures that are often restricted in Gaza (Courtesy of MFA, Boston).

An exciting new direction in Middle Eastern art will be on display at the MFA starting on Tuesday. The exhibit “She Who Tells a Story,” highlighting the work of 12 female photographers, explores the notion of Middle Eastern women being powerless by lifting the veil on their culture, and framing their lives through their own, individual lenses.

“It’s been an emerging trend from the Middle East that the most powerful and the strongest work is being done by women right now,” says Kristen Gresh, curator of the exhibit and author of the accompanying publication, She Who Tells a Story.

The images present a new take on the art of documentary, blending serious cultural discussions with individual points of view. The 12 photographers, Jananne Al-Ani, Boushra Almutawakel, Gohar Dashti, Rana El Nemr, Lalla Essaydi, Shadi Ghadirian, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Nermine Hammam, Rania Matar, Shirin Neshat, and Newsha Tavakolian, are brought together by their cultural thread, but create a compelling exhibit because of their unique stories.

All of the photographs in some way are related to Middle Eastern culture and identity, but each brings forward a different topic, and asks a different question. “It’s such a hard region to define in one territorial, religious, ethnic way,” says Gresh, “and so this exhibition actually attests to that mosaic of identities and cultures within the region.”

Each photographer showcases her own contemporary series, and three photographers have a second on display that was shot back in the 1990s, a glimpse og what was happening a few years ago. The exhibit covers a range of works, including fine art photographs, photojournalistic representations of women’s rights, and harrowing depictions of war and the women left behind.

“She Who Tells a Story,” on view at the MFA August 27-January 12, is expansive exhibit with more than 100 photographs and two videos, the first of its kind in the U.S., infusing the MFA with a passionate group of photographs that bring the contemporary styles and creativity of art in the Middle East to a new audience in Boston.

Bullets Revisited #3, 2012, Lalla Essaydi (Courtesy of MFA, Boston).

Bullets Revisited #3, 2012, by Lalla Essaydi, graduate of the School of the MFA in Boston, uses silver and gold bullet casings to address the violence in the region while also focusing on the restriction of women even in a post-revolutionary Arab world (Courtesy of MFA, Boston).

Nil, Nil #4, 2008, Shadi Ghadirian (Courtesy of MFA, Boston).

A helmet and scarf hang side-by-side in Nil, Nil #4, 2008, by Shadi Ghadirian, a deeply emotional portrayal of the loss and waiting suffered by women left at home while their husbands are fighting (Courtesy of MFA, Boston).