In the 19th century, the East represented the realm of exoticism, fantasy and mystery. Literature and painting in particular used the lands beyond Europe as canvases for fertile explorations of the unknown and unlimited boundaries for imagination. By the latter half of the century, however, several pioneer photographers travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, bringing back to Europe and North America images that captured the idea of the exotic.
Middle Eastern women, supposedly powerless and oppressed behind walls and veils, are in fact a force in both society and the arts. They played a major role in the Arab Spring and continue to do so in the flourishing regional art scene — specifically in photography — which is alive and very well indeed. Some Middle Eastern photographers have taken their cameras to the barricades, physical ones and those less obvious, like the barriers erected by stereotypes, which they remain determined to defy. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, takes note in She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, an ambitious and revealing exhibition of work by 12 women, some internationally known.
Read More: Islamic World Through Women’s Eyes
Between Lord Byron’s ecstatic Orientalism, with its colorful harems and whirling dervishes, and the more recent Western views of the Middle East, with their mostly blinkered focus on images of conflict or rapturous oil wealth, the Arab world as seen and decoded by Arab eyes still seems amazingly absent from the Occidental gallery, especially the American one. The upcoming Fotofest photography biennial, which will take place in early 2014 in Houston, will offer Americans a serious opportunity to become familiar with this important and well-established body of work by contemporary Arab photographers.
Edward Said, a literary scholar and public intellectual, spent much of his lifetime ruing the way Westerners represented the Islamic world. “What America refuses to see clearly,” he wrote months before he died in 2003, “it can hardly hope to remedy.” A fascinating exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston brings the region into sharper focus. She Who Tells A Story collects the work of 12 contemporary female photographers and film-makers from the Middle East. At a time when American and European views of the Islamic world tend to be filtered through a lens of fear and anxiety, these images offer a more nuanced portrait of a culturally complicated place.
Read More: Behind the Veil
See also: The Middle East Through Women’s Cameras
The most famous storyteller in Middle Eastern culture is a woman, Scheherazade. In the “Thousand and One Nights,” she told stories to save her life. Her exalted status lends a grim irony to the fact that the lives of women in much of the Middle East are radically circumscribed — and it lends a defiant irony to the title of She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World. Organized by Kristen Gresh, the show runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through January 12th, 2014. Gresh is the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh assistant curator of photographs.
Read More: The Middle East Through Women’s Cameras
In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. The royal party followed what was on the face of it a conventional itinerary, sailing from Venice down the Dalmatian coast on the royal yacht Osborne to Alexandria, cruising up the Nile to Aswan to view the sites of ancient Egypt, crossing to Jaffa for a tour of the Holy Land, then returning to England via the Ionian islands and Constantinople. Among the party—included at the last moment—was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region.
Read More: When the Ruins Were New
This article had its start in a dusty, little antiques store in Haifa. It was there, next to a folded and stained marriage certificate (Tel Aviv, 1931), and underneath photo albums of family and travels in the Land of Israel (1935) that a greenish paper wrapper peeked out, inside which were eight picture postcards of Cairo, in black and white. On the wrapper were printed the name and address of an emporium, in Arabic and English: Lehnert & Landrock, 44 Sherif Pasha Street, Cairo, Egypt. I bought them. When were the pictures taken? And who was the photographer? I set out in search of the answers.
Baylor University’s W.R. Poage Legislative Library will present its spring exhibit – Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples and Politics – now through May 15th, featuring 150 original photographs from Dr. Colbert Held, a 1938 alumnus of Baylor, former Foreign Service Officer with the State Department and retired diplomat-in-residence at Baylor.
A Palestinian all-female auto racing team, transsexuals in Jerusalem, cluster bomb survivors trying to rebuild their lives, Iranian mother’s of martyrs who visit their son’s grave twice a week and parents in Lebanon who continue to wait for the 17,000 missing to come home. These are among the stories from Realism in Rawiya – a presentation of the first all-female photographic collective to emerge from the Middle East, taking place at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham from January 25th to April 20th, 2013.
Read More: Realism in Rawiya