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 Jan. 12. Gresh is the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh assistant curator of photographs.
The dozen photographers in “She Who Tells a Story” are between 32 and 57, children of a post-colonial but pre-Internet world. Although they often use narrative as a vehicle, storytelling interests them less, perhaps, than making statements does. Which makes perfect sense, the power of images to provoke being what it is — and the necessity for statements in such a turbulent region being what it is.
To take what may be the most impressive example of statement-making — certainly, it’s the most direct — there’s the Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel’s nine-image sequence, “Mother, Daughter, Doll.” In it, Almutawakel manages to state the case against the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies with a deadpan wit that’s heartbreaking. A smiling woman wearing a head scarf holds a smiling child who holds a doll. In the next photograph, the girl is wearing a head scarf — in the next the doll wears a head scarf — and with each succeeding image all three figures are more covered until, finally, there’s nothing but black. The import of the act of veiling could hardly be more revealing.
“She Who Tells a Story” is a large show, comprising more than 90 photographs and two videos. Yet it feels compact because certain procedures and themes keep recurring: incongruous juxtaposition, staging images, self-display vs. self-concealment, the role of text as visual element.
Calligraphy is a classic Islamic art form, one usually restricted to male practitioners. So including it in a photograph is at once a nod to tradition and a flouting of it. The Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat superimposes calligraphy on large-size black-and-white portraits. The Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi (a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts) writes on the clothes and flesh of her sitters and the background behind them. Symbolism aside, the effect is arresting in strictly visual terms. Enhancing that effect are the scale of Essaydi’s photographs and the calm earth hues she employs. Or not so calm: the triptych “Bullets Revisited #3” has the bejeweled luster of a Klimt canvas. This makes all the more shocking the realization that the luster comes from bullet casings.
In several photographs, the Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian also superimposes Arabic writing on images. “Don’t Forget This Is Not You,” which shows a head-scarfed woman standing in a crashing wave, is a particularly potent example. Tavakolian takes a very different approach in her “Listen.” Instead of text, there’s format: Each image is a cover for an imaginary CD. A female singer, eyes closed, in front of a glittery curtain, seems lost in song. Passion, kitsch, and artistry combine. So does politics: None of these women — all actual singers — is allowed to perform in public or make recordings.
“She Who Tells a Story” also includes a video from the “Listen” series.” The show’s other video is from Jananne Al-Ani, an Iraqi. Her “Shadow Sites II” consists of large-scale aerial photographs of desert landscapes with various man-made structures barely discernible when seen at such a distance. The video is engrossing and powerful, though one could do without the doomy-ominous soundtrack.
Three photographers rely on surreal juxtaposition. In her series “Nil, Nil,” Shadi Ghadirian, an Iranian, presents the still life as colliding pair: a helmet and head scarf, combat boots and high heels, a hand grenade in a bowl of fruit. Ghadirian’s “Qajar” series are portraits, with the sepia-toned look of 19th-century photographs — except that the woman in them is doing such non-19th-century things as holding a Pepsi can. Gohar Dashti, also Iranian, evokes the Iran-Iraq War through a series of staged images of a young couple. They hang wash on barbed wire; they share a cozy meal in front of a tank; and so on. The Egyptian photographer Nermine Hammam takes color photographs of military personnel and then layers them over even more brightly colored postcard backgrounds. The effect is eye-catching — though once you catch on to what Hammam is up to, not necessarily eye-holding.
Rania Matar, who lives in Brookline, grew up in Lebanon. Her series “A Girl and Her Room” shows teenagers in their bedrooms. It’s a revealing exercise in self-presentation and self-imagination. Matar let us see, often startlingly, how bonds of sex and generation can transcend those of nationality and ethnicity. The show does a disservice to her work by including only photographs from the Middle East. While it’s easy enough to conjure up comparable images from the States (which are also part of the series), an actual juxtaposition would have been more effective.
The three remaining photographers take a more traditional, documentary approach — or two of them do. The exception is Rula Halawani, a Palestinian, whose “Negative Incursions” is documentary, except in one key respect. The series comprises large-scale negative images of the 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank. The visual shock and unreality of positive-negative reversal can’t be any more shocking and unreal than the shock and unreality of the sight of a tank outside an apartment building or foreign soldiers in your front yard.
Rana El Nemr, who’s Egyptian, takes surreptitious portraits of riders on the Cairo subway. Walker Evans did the same thing in New York, 75 years ago. But El Nemr’s images — big and colorful — look vastly different from his. The title of the Jerusalem-based Tanya Habjouqa’s “Women of Gaza” is self-explanatory. She shows women in a boat, walking through a courtyard, at a picnic. Daily life goes on in a place where, for most of us, daily life would be unimaginable. Once again there is incongruous juxtaposition, though the staging comes courtesy not of any photographer but politicians and soldiers.