Behind the Veil: Visions of the Islamic World

The Economist’s cultural columnist, Prospero, recently reported on a fascinating new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that seeks to offer a nuanced and intimate view of the Islamic world as presented by its own denizens. The premise had already piqued my interest, but the review is even more encouraging.

“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.

Take for example the giant triptych that opens the show. “Bullets Revisited #3” (pictured top, 2012) by the Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi depicts an olive-skinned woman draped across a sumptuously bejewelled bed against an ornately tiled wall. The image recalls the sensuous odalisque paintings of Western art history—a clichéd view of Eastern opulence that Said railed against in his 1978 book “Orientalism”. But closer inspection reveals that the bed in the photograph is made from shimmering bullet casings; the tiles are too. The woman’s body is covered in scar-like calligraphy. This enticingly exotic subject of Western fantasy may well be a corpse.

In the “Today’s Life and War” (2008) series by Gohar Dashti, an Iranian photographer, a couple pursues a relationship amid the detritus of a battlefield. They eat supper in front of a tank. Their laundry is strung along barbed wire. Their wedding car has been reduced to a burned out shell. Shadi Ghadirian’s “Nil Nil” (2008) series features still lifes that juxtapose combat boots with red stilettos, a grey helmet and a colourful head scarf, a grenade and a bowl of fruit. These works suggest not so much the atrocity of war but the day-to-day reality of living with it.

Largely narrative-driven and eschewing strict realism, these photographs are measured in their anger and melancholy. Newsha Tavakolian’s “Listen” (2010) series, for example, features portraits of professional Iranian singers who are forbidden to perform in public. She photographs each of them mid-song; with their eyes shut, their faces filled with tenderness and passion, these singers look a bit like classical busts articulating an ancient, nameless pain. Few photographers have used the silence of the medium more gracefully, and to such powerful effect.

The following are some of the samples of the exhibit:

As the writer concludes, this showcase does a great job of humanizing much-maligned and poorly understood group, as well as giving Muslim women a much bigger voice than they’re often credited with. I for one have learned by experience that indulging in the culture of other people — their music, cuisine, film, literature, and art — erodes much of the anxiety and distrust with which we reflexively respond to them. Culture is humanizing, it gives us a common ground to understand one another, and it allows us to see the value in groups or societies for which we have little or no understanding of.

As an agnostic atheist and secular humanist, I of course have disagreements about the Islamic view of the world (as I would with any religion). But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate its cultural and scientific contributions, or that I can’t connect with the raw human element that makes up any given ideological, social, or cultural group. It’s important to see the nuance in all things, and part of that begins by opening our minds to something as simple as an art piece, musical composition, or conversation with the “other” in question.

For those who won’t be able to see the exhibit in person (I being one of them), you can purchase a book that compiles these works here. I’ll definitely be saving up for it.

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