The Middle East Revealed: A Female Perspective @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 22 black and white and color photographs from 4 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space.

The following photographers/artists have been included in the show, with the number of prints and image details as background:

  • Reem Al Faisal: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1999-2003, each sized 39×53, in editions of 7
  • Boushra Almutawakel: 1 set of 9 chromogenic prints, 2010/later, each sized roughly 38×26, in an edition of 7, 1 chromogenic print, 2001/later, sized roughly 42×31, in an edition of 15
  • Shadi Ghadirian: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1998/2014, each sized roughly 22×16, in editions of 15
  • Rania Matar: 5 chromogenic prints, 2010/later, sized either 20×28 or 37×44, in editions of 7 or 10

A small companion show of the works of Margaret Bourke-White is on view in the book alcove. It includes 14 vintage gelatin silver prints, c1940, ranging in size from roughly 7×10 to 10×14 (or reverse), and 1 case with a selection of LIFE magazine spreads, 1940. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Regular readers here already know that I have a general dislike for summer group shows. Whether the “one of each from the stable” variety or the easy going thematic gathering (“sun” or “beach” or “sexy” or “favorites” or the like), these shows seem like such an egregious waste of time and opportunity that I find it hard to write about any of them (see an earlier screed here, from 2009). Very few of these exhibits bring us anything new or unexpected, and most fade into obscurity almost before they are even hung on the walls. And yet here we have a smart group show of contemporary Middle Eastern photography, all of it taken by women, paired with a small vintage show of Margaret Bourke-White’s WWII images from Syria. Kudos to Howard Greenberg Gallery for mixing it up a bit and keeping things interesting during the summer doldrums.

No one is better equipped to thoughtfully examine women’s roles in the Middle East than women photographers/artists themselves, and so this show interweaves four different perspectives, one each from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Lebanon. Shadi Ghadirian’s incisive studio portraits chronicle the conflicted duality of women’s lives in modern Iran. Staged in old time, sepia toned portrait settings, head scarfed women pose with anachronistic (often embargoed) props – a vacuum cleaner, various cameras, or a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses. The images capture the clash of traditional and modern (often with a dose of unexpected irony), tracing the in-between state where women carefully navigate between the old and the new. Like Malick Sidibé’s portraits of aspirational teens holding record albums, Ghadirian’s pictures have an undercurrent of quiet rebelliousness, of trying on attitudes and styles that might not be entirely acceptable.

Rania Matar’s more casual images of Lebanese girls/young women in their rooms provide a contemporary foil to Ghadirian’s period formality. In her photographs, girls in refugee camps are for the most part indistinguishable from bored teens you might find in any American city, and their rooms are no different: swimming medals, Chuck Taylors, racks of DVDs and nail polish, rock star t-shirts, and Hannah Montana stickers. Western culture has become pervasive, even in these war torn regions, and girls growing up in these areas share more influences than we might realize.

Boushra Almutawakel’s series of portraits of a mother, her daughter, and her daughter’s doll are the most striking in the show, if only because they take an obvious topic (the hijab or veil) and give it some surprising nuance and complexity. The series of images is a story of transformation, beginning with the threesome smiling in Western clothing and ending with the family entirely absent/hidden, with intermediate stops in headscarves, all black, and increasingly severe hijabs that cover hands and veil eyes. One obvious Western reading might see this series as incremental oppression, with women stifled and constrained by restrictive cultural practices, but the intensity and fervency of the gaze of the most veiled left me surprised by the unexpected power and potency of the hijab. Almutawakel’s series doesn’t take sides (seeing positive/negative in both), nor does her portrait of an enigmatic smiling woman in a stars and stripes headscarf that opens the show, where patriotism is given an unexpected face.

Reem al Faisal’s black and white photographs of the Hajj step back and give a broader view of Muslim culture, taking in the astonishing density of people making the pilgrimage to Mecca. From the ordered crowds around the Kaaba to the geometric lines of the endless air-conditioned tents, her images bring an architectural stillness to the teeming scene, a quiet marble columned courtyard a reverent respite from the bustling activity.

As the first female photojournalist and war correspondent, Margaret Bourke-White was in many ways the first woman to record a photographic perspective of the Middle East, and so the selection of her images shown in the book alcove provides a starting point for the visual discussion going on in the main gallery. Her photographs taken in Syria in 1940 mostly chronicle the movements of war: moustached French Foreign Legion troops, lines of Bedouin camel cavalry, and the scarred faces of Senegalese troops. Her few images of women follow the rhythms of daily life: walking village streets, carrying water containers, and staying out of the way of armies and soldiers, providing the enduring foundation for family and clan.

This show does a solid job of introducing us to some lesser known but accomplished photographers from the Middle East, while also smartly leveraging the gallery’s archives to provide a dose of historical context. Happily, seen together, it’s a summer group show of thoughtful extension and risk taking, one that forces us to examine some of our own stereotypes and assumptions, rather than dulling our senses with a grab bag of dumbed down leftovers.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows:

  • Reem Al Faisal: $17500 each
  • Boushra Almutawakel: $25000 for the set of 9 prints, $4500 for the single print
  • Shadi Ghadirian: $6000 each
  • Rania Matar: $3000 for the smaller (20×28) prints, $4500 for the 37×44 print

Since this is the first time much of this work has been shown in New York, it should not be surprising that the work of these photographers has limited secondary market history (Ghadirian having had a few public transactions). As such, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

The Margaret Bourke-White prints from Syria in the companion show are priced between $6000 and $8000 each. Recent sales of Bourke-Whites prints (albeit not of Syrian subject matter) have ranged as high as roughly $160000.

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Read more about: Boushra Almutawakel, Margaret Bourke-White, Rania Matar, Reem Al Faisal, Shadi Ghadirian, Howard Greenberg Gallery

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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