A girl with wavy tresses cradles her fluffy cat in front of a vanity brimming with products -- two hairbrushes, bottles and bottles of hairspray and perfume. Her shirt’s a bright coral, her walls are hot pink and adorned with images of other girls, their faces on display in square frames.
The scene is from a photo in Rania Matar’s series, “A Girl in Her Room,” which is as intimate and simple as it sounds. Matar began the project after taking portraits of her teenage daughters as they left the free and magical world of childhood to enter the more self-conscious community of adulthood. Matar initially snapped photos of her girls interacting with friends, but realized more natural images could be taken of the kids when they were alone in their own worlds, their own rooms.
“The room was a metaphor, an extension of the girl, but also the girl seemed to be part of the room, to fit in, just like everything else in the material and emotional space,” Matar writes on her site.
Matar is one of 12 women photographers showcased currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Called “She Who Tells a Story,” the exhibit features artists whose work comments on and subverts stereotypes about Middle Eastern identity.
Although Matar’s project was conceived in the United States, she expanded it to include the rooms of girls in the Middle East, where she was born. Raised in Lebanon, she moved to America and began exploring photography nearly two decades ago, returning to teach art to teenagers in refugee camps.
In her series, it's impossible to distinguish between the young American subjects and the Lebanese teens she's photographed. A blonde lounges in front of a wall-size portrait of Marilyn Monroe; a brunette casually peers out a window near her bed, peopled with stuffed teddy bears.
“I became fascinated with the similar issues girls at that age face, regardless of culture, religion and background, as they learn to deal with all the pressures that arise as they become conscious and aware of the surrounding world wherever this may be,” she writes.
The incidental beauty of Matar’s portraits is especially evident when paired with the intense, stylized work of Nermine Hammam, a photographer from Cairo who imbues her images with painting and collage. Her series “Upekkha” is a manifestation of her memories of Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the military invasion of Tahir Square. She writes on her site, “as the hatches opened, and doors of military vehicles were thrown wide, what emerged was not the angry stereotypes of power and masculinity we expected, but wide-eyed youths with tiny frames, squinting at the cacophony of Cairo.”
Hammam’s photos emphasize this juxtaposition; while she grew up believing power structures such as the military had a certain commanding aesthetic, she grew disillusioned with the impermeable nature of these institutions, believing them to be an elaborate act, complete with props and costumes.
In one of her photo mash-ups, a youthful military man gazes wistfully from behind a sniper rifle. Behind him, a picturesque garden is in full bloom. Commenting on the hazy, unreal feelings she associates with war, Hammam titled the image, “Dreamland II.”
Hammam and Matar’s work is vastly different. One offers a subtle slice of life, the other a surreal vision of the feelings war can stir up internally. Their photos alone capture the breadth of imagery being created that artfully offers an alternative to prevailing aesthetics associated with the Middle East.
View images from the exhibit below, or at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
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