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New Ackland exhibit challenges perceptions of female identities in the Arab world

"Bullets Revisited #3" by Lalla Essaydi.

The Ackland Art Museum’s newest exhibition showcases powerful works of photography by 12 female photographers from the Arab world who use the medium to capture the complexities of identity and challenge perceptions of it. 

The exhibition is called "She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World." It has over 80 photographs that showcase a variety of styles and points of view. When visitors walk into the exhibit, the first thing they see is a message from Kristen Gresh of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who first curated the show in 2013. 

 “Their images are about the people, landscapes and cultures of a region in flux — one that cannot be defined in a singular territorial, religious or ethnic way,” the message reads. 

Some photographs address the theme of war, like the still life series “Nil, Nil” by Shadi Ghadirian. Her photographs juxtapose everyday objects with objects of war. One shows a bowl of fruit with a grenade nestled between the apples and oranges. Another shows a brightly colored head scarf hanging next to a military helmet. 

Katie Ziglar, director of the Ackland, said one of the pieces she finds the most beautiful is a photo by Lalla Essaydi. The photo is split into three panels, and shows a woman reclining on a couch that seems to be made of gold. However, a closer look reveals it is made of bullets, as is the woman’s belt and the decorations on the wall behind her. 

“It looks quite lovely when you first cast your eye on it, but closer examination reveals that it’s very fraught,” Ziglar said. 

Other topics addressed in the exhibition include personal identity, deconstructing “Orientalism,” the Arab Spring and the lives of women in the Gaza Strip.

Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs, said that, while many of the works address political topics, the show does not have a particular narrative or argument. 

“I think anybody who comes to the exhibition expecting something narrow or something predictable will be surprised,” Nisbet said. 

The exhibition has been touring since 2013. This stop in Chapel Hill will be its last. Nisbet said he wanted to bring the exhibition here as an extension of the Ackland’s initiative to acquire more historical Islamic art. A small exhibition of its recent acquisitions will be in conjunction with “She Who Tells a Story.”

Nisbet said he has been presenting a challenge to anyone who visits the exhibition: if the Ackland were able to purchase one of the pieces for its permanent collection, which piece should it be? He asks visitors to consider which are the most beautiful or have the most resonance, or which would be most useful as a teaching tool. 

Ziglar said one of the reasons she wanted to bring the exhibit to the Ackland was as a teaching tool to show people the humanity of a region many Americans aren’t familiar with. 

A review from The Economist quoted in the Ackland's press release said,  "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." 

Similarly, Nisbet said he hopes visitors to the exhibit will be able to appreciate both the universal and specific aspects of the photography. He said it is fine if people are drawn to the exhibition because of politics, but that should only be the beginning of the conversation.

“It’s a show that might get attention because of contemporary politics and contemporary world affairs and contemporary issues within the university, but I hope that that’s just the beginning of an engagement with these artist's visions,” Nisbet said. “It can be the hook, it can be the bridge in, but it shouldn’t be the last word on understanding these artists.”

“She Who Tells a Story” opened Sept. 20 and will run until Dec. 1. The Ackland is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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