Goodbye to Stereotypes
Women Photographers Offer a New Perspective on the Middle East

Even before the Arab Spring they took up their cameras. Today, photographers from North Africa and the Middle East are an integral part of the international art scene.
First it was the geopolitical confusion of the 1980s and 1990s, and then the repercussions of September 11, 2001, that drew worldwide media attention to North Africa and the Middle East, the so-called MENA region. Ten years later the unrest of the Arab Spring captured the world’s interest and today the advance of IS troops in Syria and Iraq is making waves. The conflicts and radical upheavals in the Middle East are forcing people to rethink, casting doubt on traditional roles and concepts of identity. In light of this situation, new visual forms of representation have to be found. And it is from this necessity that contemporary art in the region is deriving its power and urgency, above all video art and photography.

In view of reports from the West, it is now clear that there is a need for across-the-board knowledge of an “Orient” hitherto seen as absolutely other, not to say as an adversary. Instead, current art from these countries has an almost fashionable aura—more and more artists from the Middle East are invited to international theme shows and biennials. Despite themselves, artists from the Middle East have become ambassadors, anthropologists, and spokespersons for their cultures and their own work: bridges, one might say, facilitating dialogue or a shared interpretation of the world. It is thanks to them that the West has been able to conceive of a more modern, more universal Orient. Surprisingly enough, women artists of the region have been among the first to take the relevant media in hand, deconstructing and redefining them through a rigorous reexamination of ossified conceptions of their role as women.

In the Middle East of the 1990s there were, on the one hand, women press and documentary photographers who covered domestic social issues and conflicts with images often not easy to obtain; and on the other, those whose approach was more creative and who used photography as a visual art medium. The main concerns of the latter group consisted in shaking off the stereotyped images assigned to them as victims or fantasy objects. Thus they frequently resorted to a critical reading of Orientalism in works whose images were compositionally more complex and thought provoking.

Those who considered themselves press or documentary photographers had succeeded in a previously masculine, macho world. Zohra Bensemra earned her spurs as a press photographer during the ten years of civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. Since then the photojournalist, whose work is on exhibit on an entire floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers, has reported for Reuters on war and unrest all over North Africa and the Middle East. Her pictures are often of innocent victims: women and children whose plight testifies to the murderous violence of men. Whenever she can she homes in on the few moments of grace in the everyday lives of people living in these zones of turbulence.

However, the purely journalistic approach of most women photographers has evolved during the 2000s towards something more personal, while still retaining an emphasis on political and social subjects: urban and suburban expansion, together with the living conditions and contradictions that go with it. Nonetheless “citizen reporting” would loom large with the coming of the Arab revolts, and women would play just as significant a role as men in giving an account of what was happening. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria the number of photographs taken by artists and young photographers was impressive, not to mention the many resulting artworks. Social networks were a significant factor in circulating the photographic image, which had long been under the thumb of the ruling regimes. Until then, it was all but illegal to take pictures in public places.

Another victory was a return to a form of participatory citizen activity previously suppressed by official propaganda. This interest on the part of women in new, socially-inflected forms of documentary photography also made itself felt in the creation of the Rawiya collective of young Middle Eastern women. Light years away from the media obsession with high drama, most of their series revolve around delicately treated humanistic material. Tanya Habjouqa, for instance, focuses on daily life in the Syrian refugee camps and in Gaza, while Myriam Abdelaziz documents the living conditions of child workers in the quarries of Menya, Egypt, in almost picturesque photos. However, the absence of a national press and shrinking sources of income for press photographers have driven documentary photographers to seek other outlets in, for example, art galleries and official commissions. This situation has meant that documentary approaches have to combine form and content in a merging with the world of the visual arts. There is currently real ferment in the local and regional art scenes in the Middle East, where artists have been able to establish a higher profile by setting up alternative creative spaces and communication networks.

Often shaped by complex, multifaceted cultures, women artists have set about deconstructing and reshaping the components of those cultures. It is hardly surprising, then, that the portrait and self-portrait have become crucial representational elements. As the ultimate form of identity embodiment, the portrait, whether realistic or stylized, allows the artist to play with the subterfuges of depiction and interpretation, define a form of territoriality, and convey signs of recognition and identitarian overtones. In the mid-nineties Shirin Neshat’s series Women of Allah, which showed “calligraphed” portraits of veiled women, was the first truly modern, highly personal challenge to orientalist stereotypes. Above all her photos are a denunciation of sexist, religious, and military oppression in post-revolutionary Iran, at the same time raising issues of artistic representation.

One decade later, in her series Girls in Cars from 2005, Shirin Aliabadi paints a picture of a different kind of Iranian society. Teheran women always find a way to dress in the latest fashions. They have developed clever methods of undermining the religious restrictions imposed on them. Aliabadi criticizes a system that reduces women to their appearance as well as the cliché ideas about Iranian women prevailing in the West.

The Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh, on the other hand, photographs herself in extremely personal, scenic performances. In them, she reconstructs classic depictions of women from Western art and cultural history and from the fairytale world of the Brothers Grimm. Her series cast wa sarcastic glance at cultural discrepancies and mental and geographic estrangement, which place a burden on everyone involved in the Palestinian territorial conflict.

The French-born Algerian Zineb Sedira, who is represented with works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, has a completely different view of traditions and gender roles. In her early works she examines the conservative values handed down by her mother, who had migrated to Paris, and the confrontations that were part of shaping her own hybrid identity. With her video installation Floating Coffins Sedira attained international renown in 2009. In the tradition of Romantic landscape painting, she shows rusted shipwrecks and tanker graveyards lining the Mauritanian coast, bearing testimony to environmental destruction and futile dreams of prosperity in a globalized world.

In a region where the concept of community has long been the rule, the emergence of the individual with personal aspirations creates difficulties in often conflictual contexts. Globalization and the market economy as the sole development models are bringing with them the rise of individual aspirations towards a better way of life, but most importantly they have accentuated the unequal distribution of wealth. Since beginning with a series of documentary photos, Yto Barrada has been observing change in her home city of Tangier, whose urban and economic booms go hand in hand with blatant social inequalities and the dead weight of cramping traditions, poverty, and oppression. Barrada, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2011, lays bare the shattered illusions and dreams of people hoping for better times as they gaze over the straits of Gibraltar—that emblematic point of transit towards the limitless possibilities often portrayed in her images as allegories of disenchantment. The galloping expansion of certain cities and the consumer society provide subject matter for many other photographers too. Maha Maamoun, who is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, has looked into domestic tourism in Egypt, depicting the leisure activities of the Mubarak era’s middle class in a postcard land of faked, illusory images; fun for a minority at the expense of the great majority.

The creativity and complexity with which these photographers and artists approach social realities has not only given them an important voice in North Africa and the Middle East, but also in the international art world. They document reality and at the same time develop emancipatory perspectives and complementary worlds that have not been shown even in the cosmopolitan art scene, calling for intercultural dialogue and for a new and differentiated view of a region in upheaval.

Michket Krifa is a Paris-based freelance curator and writer specializing in Africa and the Middle East.