Contemporary art from the Middle East has been steadily building interest ever since 9/11, and the photography scene in particular is booming. For the first time ever, it is the women who are shouting loudest. "She Who Tells a Story", at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, makes a brave statement. It pulls together the work of 12 hungry photographers to highlight the rich creativity of a region too often seen as being all about conflict. Kristen Gresh, assistant curator of photographs at the MFA, has run into fierce opposition after deciding to group female artists from the Arab world under one umbrella. "Associating artistic imagination with geography, or gender," she concedes, "runs the risk of creating a deceptive simplicity that is exactly what this project aims to avoid." But she is unfazed, and determined to display the diversity of what she sees as some of the most compelling photography of our time. "It’s about putting art and culture before politics."
The images will do most of the talking for her. Some are full of energy, life and lustre, others gritty and drenched in pain, all with a story to tell. "Don’t Forget This Is Not You" (above), 2010, is part of "Listen", a series by Newsha Tavakolian, who has created a set of imaginary CD covers for a group of professional female singers forbidden to record or perform in public in their native land, Iran. Born in 1981, Tavakolian represents a generation of young, post-revolutionary Iranian photographers, who continue to push boundaries but remain firmly attached to their national identity.
"Roja", 2012, by Shirin Neshat is quite different. The photograph, one of the largest on show, is of a woman holding her heart, gazing outwards intensely. Her face is smothered in Farsi calligraphy—a sacred, male-dominated art form. The characters get smaller from top to bottom and the verses are broken into neat linear columns. Her expression is still, her eyes heavy. The image, menacing and tender, is so strong that it needs no words. ~ Olivia Weinberg
She Who Tells a Story, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Aug 27th to Jan 12th
At a glance
No Foreign Lands: Peter Doig (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Aug 3rd to Nov 3rd). One of Britain’s most innovative painters, Doig sucks you in with strange colour combinations and sense of mystery. This is his first big retrospective in his homeland.
Origins of the Afro Comb (Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, to Nov 3rd). A whole show on the 6,000-year history of African combs, from pre-dynastic Egypt to Black Power. With live demos and digital interaction, this is your chance to become a comb connoisseur.
Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (Cleveland Museum of Art, to Jan 26th). A dozen half friendly, half beastly bronzes in the museum’s newly opened atrium. Do not be fooled by the subject—they are deep and dark.
Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist (Tate Modern, London, to Sept 22nd). An 82-year-old former politician and diplomat, El-Salahi is inspired by his native Sudan. His paintings have inky lines, fiddly shapes and earthy tones.
The Poetry of Paper (J. Paul Getty Museum, LA, to Oct 20th). Rembrandt, Boucher and Seurat left parts of their work blank to create the illusion of light and form and this show is all about the white bits. Each drawing comes with a haiku.
Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture (Pallant House, Chichester, July 6th to Oct 13th). "All human experience, is one big collage," Paolozzi said. His screen prints are dazzling. Packed with colour, squiggles, bits and bobs, they are some of the finest examples of pop art.
Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 (Royal Academy, London, to Sept 29th). A feisty period often seen as a cultural renaissance. This show mixes Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros with Albers, Burra and Cartier-Bresson, all inspired by their own Mexican jaunts. ~ OW