By Michaela Dwyer
I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about gender, art, and ethics, and this week more than usual. So think of this, if you’d like, as a piggyback post—at least in the art and ethics sense—to Nathan’s consideration of photographer Anthony Karen’s fascinating documentary photography of the Ku Klux Klan. This is part of a larger conversation about whether art is and should be political or politicized, which eventually, inevitably, circles back to that dreaded Philosophy 101 query: “what is art?” (see also: “what even is art anyway?”).
These are complicated and increasingly abstract questions already so I’ll jump back into the muck of the tangible. This past weekend I traveled to Boston and to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the photography exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. The exhibition description gives it to us straight: “These prominent photographers have tackled the very notion of representation with passion and power, questioning tradition and challenging perceptions of Middle Eastern identity. Their provocative work…provides insights into political and social issues, including questions of personal identity…in images of great sophistication, expressiveness, and beauty.” It’s worth noting that expressed as-is, these descriptive statements about the exhibition collectively evade its most (least?) common denominator: women—both artists and subjects—occupying space in a public (artistic, cultural, political) discourse largely dominated by men.
Immediately after leaving the exhibition, I purchased the anthology Women Artists at the Millennium. It’s structured as a follow-up to art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 critical essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—which I recall annotating intensely last year. Then, Nochlin wrote at the precipice of postmodernism, the eve of a seismic academic and cultural shift toward the recognition and discussion of identity politics—gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, et al—in a new global society. As a 20-something of the 21st century, I remember my disappointment in Nochlin’s original essay: despite her feminist concerns, Nochlin hadn’t yet gotten with the postmodernist program to deal with contemporary aesthetic practices that were beginning to articulate feminism and women’s experience in new ways—practices like conceptual art, body and performance art, and photography. In the current anthology, Nochlin is still tethered to a white Western artistic canon populated by painters and sculptors; only, this time, a few more women artists are highlighted, and photography gets a mention.
In fact Nochlin cites Iranian-American photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, whose large-scale portraits of Iranian women overlaid with Persian calligraphy are heavily featured in She Who Tells a Story. Neshat’s work explores Iranian expressions of womanhood in the context of strict social, cultural, and religious codes; this treatment is complicated, however, by Neshat’s self-imposed exile from Iran. Nearby in the exhibition is Iraq-born artist Jananne Al-Ani’s 1996 pair of photos (Untitled 1 & 2). Similar in scale to Neshat’s, Al-Ani’s two pieces line parallel walls that the viewer must stand between. When I encountered Al-Ani’s work, I had the distinct physical sensation of entering a potent women’s space. Each giant photograph shows Al-Ani, her three sisters, and her mother in successive stages of hijab—all facing the camera directly, all staring back at us, consigned and compelled viewers, as we meet their gaze.
“Gaze” is an operative word here because, in a way, the work displayed in She Who Tells a Story collectively bucks traditional methods of making and viewing art. There is, crucially, the women-photographing-women dimension, a representational approach that systematically upends what Nochlin and other feminist scholars decry as the “male gaze.” As a woman and as a feminist viewer, I got the most out of the exhibition through this schema; I felt an intimacy with visual narratives that were not my own, but which felt connected to my experience as a woman in a society that I believe continues to be male-dominated. “Seeing is believing,” right?
And the works are indeed nuanced in both their content and mode of expression; what you’re seeing, or what the curator hopes you’re seeing, is not a prescriptive program on the oppression of women in the Arab world, but rather an illumination of their diverse lived experiences—political, politicized, and not.
But I’m uncomfortable even with the direct reference to this possibility of oppression. I’m not only a woman and a feminist viewer, but a white Western woman and feminist viewer standing in a Western art museum and looking (gazing, even) at Middle Eastern women seen through the eyes of Middle Eastern women artists. My understanding of any oppression I feel as a woman in Western society seems to clash with their lived experience—in hijab, in an Iraqi or Iranian town, in families where the role of a woman is clearly defined as subordinate to a man.
A while back, I talked with Caitlin M. Kelly, Kenan’s Graduate Arts Fellow, about what influenced the theme of the exhibition she’s curating this fall. She mentioned Wendy Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. In it Hesford discusses the tendency and danger of Western human rights campaigns understanding and deploying the “‘third-world woman’ as a singular monolithic subject”—a woman in hijab, devoid of context told in her own terms.
I feel a bit paralyzed in the gap here—similar to how I felt standing between Al-Ani’s pair of photos. Do I have a “right” to connect to these women because I’m a woman? Do our separate cultural experiences preclude empathetic understanding? Hesford advocates for “scrutiniz[ing] the objectivist model of visual evidence” that “seeing is believing.” And I think it’s here, in this impulse toward the conscientious absorption of art—and thus our world—where I take comfort. To take serious interest and pleasure in experiences with which we are unfamiliar, and not to automatically believe them as ‘true’ according to a single cultural or political narrative. What we get when we pay for and shuffle through the museum are these complicated layers of representative experience(s); it is our responsibility, despite and in light of our own identity politics, to be critical, to open ourselves up to them, be free within them, and begin to grasp at what feels familiar inside the stories and images of others. In the words of another, one of the exhibited photographers, Newsha Tavakolian:
“I was raised with people trying to tell me what to do and think. Now I want those looking at my work to have their own opinions. I don’t want to enforce any ideas or views upon them. They are free.”