Female photographers participating in multidisciplinary exhibition seek to transcend stereotypes.
The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts hosts the initial leg of an ambitious exhibition entitled “I AM” with a focus on universal human themes.
Under the Patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, “I AM” is an exhibition curated by art consultant Janet Rady and organised by international peacebuilding arts initiative CARAVAN. The exhibition opened on 3 May 2016 at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts and closes on 14 June 2017. It then moves to St Martin-in-The-Fields in London (3 July to 20 August 2017) and will travel to Katzen Arts Center of American University (September 5-October 22) before touring select venues in the United States.
“I AM” is a multidisciplinary exhibition that features 31 artists from across the Middle East and its diaspora. It brings together work from 12 photographers including Marwa Adel (Egypt), Ahaad Alamoudi (Saudi Arabia), Alia Ali (Yemen), Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen), Maitha Demithan (United Arab Emirates), Lalla Essaydi (Morocco), Faten Gaddes (Tunisia), Azadeh Ghotbi (Iran), Ghada Khunji (Bahrain), Rania Matar (Lebanon), Raeda Saadeh (Palestine) and Nagla Samir (Egypt).Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is well-known for her work globally concerning cross-cultural initiatives, as well as her dedication towards education, community empowerment and youth programmes within Jordan. In a message found in the exhibition catalogue, Her Majesty Queen Rania remarks how art has the power to impart awe, respect and hope:
For isn’t that the joy of art – its ability to speak to us all about what is both familiar and unfamiliar? To be a language that transcends borders and barriers. To be the consummate diplomat, traveling the world overcoming race, religion and rancor, building bridges of respect and understanding between us all, North, South, East and West.
Curator and art consultant Janet Rady successfully earned an MA in Islamic Art History from the University of Melbourne and a BA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Ms Rady has over 25 years experience in the international art market and specialises in Middle Eastern contemporary art. Recent bespoke curatorial events include “The Ocean Can Be Yours” at the Gerald Moore Gallery and “Memory & Future / Future & Memory” at the Shirin Gallery. For the “I AM” show, as relayed in the curatorial statement found in the exhibition catalogue, the images chosen were specifically selected to move well beyond the stereotypical image of Middle Eastern women in the Western media:
What is immediately apparent when viewing the selected works, is the extraordinary talent and powerful messages that these artists display in their respective practices and the varied visual interpretation of the global quest for harmony and peace. It would have been far too easy to depict a stereotypical female figure, perhaps one veiled and situated in a domestic setting or even shown indulging in that clichéd past time of retail consumption on the well-trodden streets of Knightsbridge or the shopping malls of Dubai, such is often characterised by the international media.
CARAVAN is an arts initiative founded in 2009 by Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler in Cairo. According to the organisation’s website, it actively reaches across borders to “enhance understanding” through art. The initiative collaborated with Ms Rady to organise the exhibition. According to CARAVAN’s website, “I AM” is the organisation’s 11th exhibition and celebrates valuable contributions made by some of the region’s premier visual artists:
I AM will showcase the insights and experiences of Middle Eastern women as they confront issues of culture, religion and social reality in a rapidly changing world both in the Middle East and West. This exhibition is an acknowledgement of how they continue to creatively evolve new narratives that uphold their rich heritage while embracing a future full of challenges.
This interest in reaching across borders and cultures is reflected in the exhibition’s title – “I AM”. As explained in an article on Artdaily, the title acts as a bridge between the Abrahamic faiths revealing common ground and experience:
The words of divine self-identification, “I AM”, are familiar to Christians and Muslims to represent God/Allah, therefore serving as an interreligious bridge. The phrase “I AM” remind us, regardless of creed, of all being equal and one. Above all, this exhibition celebrates the diversity of human expression, while also asserting the common priorities that all persons seek and treasure.
The exhibition also shines a light on recent strides made by women in the region. According to Director General of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts Dr Khalid Khrels’ Opening Words in the exhibition catalogue, “I AM” uses a combination of media to address a contemporary narrative:
The human experience of each individual artist taking part in this exhibition is a reflection of the great strides and recognition that women have made in all fields during the last century. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of accomplished women artists in this part of the world and I AM is a true expression of today’s concepts, ideas and beliefs. The artists have used a variety of contemporary media and techniques in their work to speak to the viewer, providing a poignant, intellectual and sensory dialogue.
The history of photography in the Middle East is a long one, with an explosion in images in recent years aided largely by the widespread availability of the ubiquitous smartphone loaded with sophisticated cameras and ease of digital processing. This availability has given contemporary Middle Eastern female photographers an exciting and equal platform in which to explore and share what was once considered very private.
The West’s interest in the “Orientalist” domain has often been coloured, however, by a fascination with the region’s use of the veil. In an article by journalist Emma-Kate Symons in Women in the World, photographer Rania Matar discusses her work and how contemporary Middle Eastern photographers are challenging the West’s version of reality:
People in the West often want to see images that are about women and oppression and the veil. A lot of the photographic work caters to that but it’s not always the reality. On the ground there’s a whole other side to it. Behind the scenes people are just people.
The diverse offerings from the exhibition’s 12 photographers push beyond the traditional narratives surrounding femininity. For example, Faten Gaddes‘ triptych challenges the “notion of gender and identity”, Maitha Demithan’s scanograph examines a woman’s “job” as a mother and Ghada Khunji‘s work inquires why women were not present at Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the loss of her father at a young age.
Other works touch on the troubled history of the region and interweaving of religions and traditions. In Palestinian photographer Raeda Saadeh’s work, her character “faces justice and longs for change” in an occupied land, and Marwa Adel and Nagla Samir’s digital photomontage’s beautifully display the three pillars of Islamic design: symmetry, repetition and rhythm.
“I AM” stands before us as a clarion call to challenge our perception of the “other”, regardless of cultural differences and post-9/11 accusations. As Alia Ali’s obscured auto-portrait and Lalla Essaydi’s work resplendent with bullet casings demonstrate, it can be easy to succumb to stereotyping of others but in fact, understanding each other may be one of the only way to move forward together. As Her Majesty Queen Rania remarked in exhibition catalogue, this multi-city, multi-country exhibition provides a much needed path to peace in a difficult time:
I hope that as this exhibition opens in cities worldwide, and people look through this window into our lives, they see what I see – what I’ve always known. That the people of the Middle East are as warm and welcoming as as they are generous and open-minded. And that, today, perhaps more than ever, they are eager to forge friendships beyond their own borders in the name of a stronger, more harmonious global family.
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- 9 women photographers from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa @ Objectifs, Singapore – November 2016 – Magnum Foundation co-presents the best work in photography and film from an international field of women photographers
- “SHE”: international women artists at Shanghai Long Museum West Bund – September 2016 – The exhibition at Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai features select work by international women artists from the Long Museum collection and important loans
- Modern women: 13 Lebanese female artists in “LEBANON MODERN!” at the Beirut Art Fair 2016 – September 2016 – country’s culturally rich modernist period highlighted at fair’s seventh edition
- A feminine look at Saudi Arabia’s “GENERA#ION” at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco – August – Art Radar profiles the work of the five female artists on display in the show “Genera#ion”, showcasing Saudi Arabian art at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco
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