These are some of the most resonant works of art coming out of the Middle East today: blatant messages, cutting perspectives and simple documentation. They are also produced by some of strongest, unfiltered voices—women from Iran and the Arab World.
“We are human beings, we have stories to tell that are multi-layered and complex," said Boushra Almutawakel, one of the artists featured in the show. "You know we are not terrorists, we are not all terrorists, we are not crazy, we are not all extremists. And things are not as they seem; things are not one- sided."
In "She Who Tells A Story," now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, women like Almutawakel, from Yemen, have plenty to say and more importantly, the freedom in which to express it. In her series Mother, Daughter, Doll, we see Almutawakel and her eldest daughter methodically disappear behind their hijabs until they are no more.
"In Yemen, it is a very conservative country," said Almutawakel. "And just in the past 10 years, it has become even more conservative with the spread of different more extreme forms of Islam. And I found that one of the things that you can see that shows extremism is the way in which women have been veiling, and it’s literally become layers and layers of covering. And there is more of expression of some kind of political view of religion, and so form a kind of control."
What westerners should try to see she says, is what lies beneath.
"So many women are extraordinary and strong, and are lawyers, artists, and philosophers, and they are wearing their veil," she said.
In Cairo, nearly a decade before the Arab Spring, Rana El Nemr surreptitiously photographed subway travelers in her series The Metro.
"When I was watching people and watching the space, I became very obsessed by how the space made the people, some of the people who are using the space, how it made them so absorbed, and so kind of out of their body’s presence in a way," said El Nemr.
El Nemr was quick to point out she photographed both men and women and has mixed opinions of the MFA selecting only the latter.
"This specific collection, when it’s shown, it tells something being really keen on negating on the stereotype of women in the United States," she said. "And I think that’s really good. I’m not sure if I do it, I would do it the same way, but I understand that I don’t live here."
With an even more disparate vantage point, Rania Matar, who lives in the Boston area, returned to her native Lebanon for her series, A Girl and Her Room, in which she photographed young women whose identities are echoed in their bedrooms.
"They decided what they wanted to put on the wall." she said "They are surrounding themselves with all these things that they are going through, and what they are choosing to be. You know, at some point though, I realized that thirty years earlier, I was exactly like those girls, exact same thing. I mean, but I was growing up in Lebanon, and with the backdrop of a civil war, and I was still the same young woman."
Lebanon, Matar also noted, is among the most western of those featured in the show which gives her work a mystifying nuance.
"Lebanon, it is very important to know that there are a lot of religions," she said. "So it’s not a Muslim country as well. There is… I mean it is a Muslim country, but it’s also a Christian country and a Druze country. So it offers a lot of ambiguity there as well. And I like that. Like some of these girls on the wall, you cannot tell if they are Muslim or Christian, and I probably won’t tell you."
"She Who Tells A Story" quickly presents volumes of them.
"She Who Tells A Story" will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 12, 2014.