Art Exhibit Shows the Middle East Through Female Photographers’ Eyes

A photography exhibit at the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill offers a fresh perspective on the Middle East.
By Shelbi Polk | Images courtesy Ackland Museum

There is a long history of Westerners, particularly artists, seeing what they want to see in the Middle East—whether they’re looking for an exotic, exciting place full of monsters from Scheherazade’s stories or a homogeneous region full of oppressed and unhappy women. 

But The Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibit, She Who Tells a Story, makes sure Western audiences see the Middle East through the lens of local women, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Untitled #5 by Gohar Dashti

“I think many people, when they heard that we were doing a show of women photographers from the Middle East and Iran, sort of expected it would be all about the veil or all about Islamic politics,” says museum curator Peter Nisbet. “And that’s in the show. But people are quite struck by how much the exhibition is dealing with issues of war, because it has been sort of a defining experience for large parts of the Middle East, and also how much it deals with personal experience and almost private experience.”

One series of portraits, A Girl and Her Room by Rania Matar, shows girls caught in a dangerous stage, right between childhood and adulthood, alone in their bedrooms. One portrait shows a dreamy girl in a room full of soft colors and art, “Lolita” slanted across the bedside table. Some subjects are refugees trying to build a home and a space in a new country. One girl stares at the camera defiantly, perched in front of a huge picture of Marilyn Monroe. 

These portraits highlight the universality of navigating adolescence. No matter where she’s growing up, or how, every girl will have to confront who she is and who she is asked to be, by her culture, her family, the systems in which she lives. 

Untitled, from Qajar series by Shadi Ghadirian

She Who Tells a Story was compiled by Kristen Gresh, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who has worked as a curator in Cairo and Paris as well. A note from Gresh at the beginning of the exhibit says an Iranian artist thought Gresh might reinforce the stereotype of Iranian women as “oppressed and powerless.” But the sheer number of stories these photographers tell challenges any stereotypes Western audiences might bring with them to such a show and encourages them to deepen genuine empathy.

“In Iran, women are quite powerful, unlike their cliched image,” artist Shirin Neshat writes next to her piece, “Rapture.” “What I try to convey through my work is that power.”

The Break by Nermine Hammam

The exhibit doesn’t allow audiences to leave with a romanticized view of life in the Middle East either. There are series that protest constricting rules for women’s clothing and careers, and many of the artists focus on the way war and violence has become part of everyday life for many people. 

“The choosing of only women photographers is really interesting. On one level, they’re just great photographers,” Nisbet says. “But I think the woman’s perspective in the Islamic world or a world marked by war has a universal resonance which helps give the show its power. I certainly think it opens up a much more nuanced and complex approach to our experience of the Middle East.”