An elderly Afghan woman holds a faded portrait of her son, killed in the Iran-Iraq war. A Palestinian woman rally driver prepares for her race, her red car surrounded by men. A child with amputated legs plays on the beach – he survived a cluster bomb.
These arresting images are among many by Rawiya, the first all-women photographic collective to emerge from the Middle East. Rawiya is currently showcasing its first major exhibition in the UK at the New Art Exchange gallery in Nottingham.
Rawiya, which means “she who tells a story” in Arabic and Farsi, is a groundbreaking group of six photographers from the Middle East: Myriam Abdelaziz, Tamara Abdul Hadi, Laura Boushnak, Tanya Habjouqa, Dalia Khamissy and Newsha Tavakolian.
Each photographer has her own distinct style, but they are connected by common themes – to tell human stories from the Middle East from women’s perspective.
The women, who live across the Middle East, started Rawiya because they believe they hold more sway showcasing their work together rather than individually.
“We work alone for the main part and individually our work wouldn’t fill an entire gallery exhibition. But together we can fill up a venue and shake up the rather monotonous idea that exists out there about the Middle East,” explains Habjouqa, who currently lives in East Jerusalem and helped found Rawiya in 2010. Some of the members of the group already knew each other professionally and, after a series of Skype conversations, came up with the idea of working as a collective.
“Rawiya raises our profile. Since we have banded together we have a lot more power and we’ve gained a lot more attention,” says Habjouqa. “Plus, we get to collaborate. Working as a professional photographer can be lonely, but we share assignments and bounce ideas off each other.”
It’s certainly true that an exhibition of works by six women photographers from the Middle East turns heads – the launch event at the New Art Exchange was sold out and the gallery reports a rise in the number of repeat
visits from people wanting to examine Rawiya’s work.
“People are really fascinated by the journey of these pictures across the Middle East,” says Melanie Kidd, the director of programmes at the New Art Exchange. “They are interested by the stories and backgrounds of the photographers as much as by the photography itself.”
Each of the photographers has presented a series for the current exhibition, which explores and reveals various aspects of what it is to be a woman and Middle Eastern, but also what life is like in a region ravaged by war. “There is a sense of solidarity, survival and human spirit that comes through,” says Kidd.
Rawiya’s photographs tell stories that would ordinarily be left untold. There’s the anguish of thousands of Lebanese parents whose children went missing during the civil war but who still hope that their children might return. They’ve kept whatever they could of their offspring’s belongings, which Khamissy photographed for her collection, The Missing.
Then, there’s Abdelaziz’s photographs of women protesting that captures the political mood of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Boushnak has taken startling images of children wounded by cluster bombs and Tavakolian has created a poignant series called Mothers of Martyrs that consists of photographs of elderly Iranian women holding photos of their dead sons who were killed in the Iran-Iraq war.
One of Habjouqa’s collections focuses on the daily lives of women in Gaza, showing them intimately as mothers, daughters and sisters, while another follows the journey of the Speed Sisters, the first all-women Palestinian auto racing team.
In an interesting gender twist, Hadi has taken sensitive, intimate close-ups of young Arab men, smiling or looking bashfully away, to challenge the perceived notion of Arab masculinity as strong, dominant and violent. Habjouqa also plays with gender stereotypes, with photos of transvestites in Jerusalem and Palestine who defy all social conventions where they live.
Kidd says: “Their images explore not just what it is to be a woman in the Middle East, but what it is to be Middle Eastern whether male or female. They’re asking East and West to think about their own stereotypes.”
Abdelaziz says Rawiya is, to an extent, about redressing the way in which the world looks at the Middle East.
“The eye of a female photographer is different to that of a male photographer,” she says, over the phone from Cairo where she currently lives. “We propose a vision of the Middle East that is more feminine than what we usually see. There are a lot more male photographers in the Middle East than female ones. But we want to put out a female perspective and show a side to life that isn’t normally seen.”
ŸRealism in Rawiya shows at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham, until April 20
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