The title of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts , “She Who Tells a Story,” undersells the high quality of the work therein. The name is borrowed from an Arabic word, rawiya, which also refers to a group of female photographers working as a collective in the Middle East. But the title makes it sound as if this provocative show — devoted to photography by women from Iran and the Arab world — is just another exercise in narrative, just more storytelling, a needless addition to the overflowing swamp of narrative that drowns out critical thinking.
Writing and erasure
Among the most established female photographers to emerge from the region is Shirin Neshat, recently the subject of a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and represented in this show by selections from her 2012 “Book of Kings” series, in which black-and-white portraits are covered with a delicate, dense tracery of Persian poetry. The Iranian-born Neshat’s iconic images have inspired other female photographers, who transcend Neshat’s relatively simple gesture by raising deeper questions about the erasure of women’s identities and testimony. Unlike Neshat’s images, where the text is written on the surface of the image, the images of Morrocan American Lalla Essaydi depict women whose skin is the canvas for the text. To “erase” the words hennaed onto the woman seen in Essaydi’s 2012 “Bullets Revisited #3,” you would have to scrub her skin — an intimacy that raises the stakes in any effort to silence the artist, the subject or the texts. Tehran’s Newsha Tavakolian uses text in yet another way. Rather than superimpose it on female subjects, she represents it as deferential to the women in her images. In her “Listen” series, text isn’t overlaid onto the body, but frames the woman, stands behind her or, in one case, curls around her arms and torso, respecting the body.