Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 18, 2023
Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond
April 23–September 24, 2023, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Women Defining Women In Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond, installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Apr 23–Sep 24, 2023. © Rania Matar, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond, curated by Linda Komaroff at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), brings together an international roster of forty-two women artists who, as the opening wall text describes them, “were born or live in what can broadly be termed Islamic societies or associated diaspora communities.” The exhibition joins several other exhibitions over the past two decades or so that focus on the contemporary art production of women from the Islamic world, such as Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World (2002), She Who Tells a Story (2013), and Being and Belonging (2023) to name just three. The LACMA exhibition’s mission is to challenge conceptions of women from the Islamic world as silent or submissive and instead allow them to tell their own stories through their work. The opening text claims (perhaps a bit loftily) that the exhibition will “alter perceptions of women in the Middle East and beyond.”

Komaroff has brought together an impressive array of artists and works. One of the strong points of the exhibition is its geographic scope. Despite the somewhat messy geographic parameters laid out in the introductory text and title, which seem to alternate between the amorphously defined “Islamic societies” and the geography of the Middle East there were artists from parts of the globe that often get overlooked such as Kazakhstan (Almagul Menlibayeva), Malaysia (Mandy El-Sayegh), and Nigeria (Rahima Gambo). Similarly, the artists in the exhibition range from those who are more widely internationally known and who appear frequently in exhibitions of artists from the region such as Shirin Neshat, Hayv Kahraman, Shadi Ghadirian, Shahzia Sikander, Lalla Essaydi, Zineb Sedira, and Mona Hatoum, alongside less frequently exhibited artists like Sherin Guirguis, Sara Al Haddad, and Inci Eviner, as well as local Los Angeles artists like Yasmine Nasser Diaz.

With such a large number of artists and works, the curatorial framework and organization is key for guiding viewers through the show, and the LACMA exhibition does this well without being didactic. Works are grouped together into categories, but these aren’t spelled out anywhere in the exhibition space, leaving the viewer to arrive at the organizing principles themselves drawing their own connections. One enters the space into mostly photographs of women that confront the preconceptions viewers might arrive with, and stare back at them often with an assertive female gaze. Rania Matar’s photographic portrait, Iman, Griffith Park (2022) depicts a young woman in a short dress and combat boots, a shawl draped over one shoulder gazing back at the camera with a frown that reads more defiant than depressed. She sits with crossed legs leaning back on a rocky surface at the titular Los Angeles park with a camera and spread display of photographs, all of which look quite aged by virtue of their black and white and sepia tones. This opening portrait sets the tone for the exhibition—a reminder that if you’re thinking of these women as individuals much distanced from yourself, you are wrong, as they are also right here in Los Angeles.

Two adjacent sections take up the body broadly, and the vagina, specifically. Sarah Al Haddad’s fiber work sculpture self portrait (2011) uses materials typically associated with the feminine, such as yarn in shades of pink, to create a sculptural self-portrait that despite the soft and feminine materiality, articulates a weight of the heaviness that the experience of being a woman can carry. Hayv Kahraman’s Pussy Donation Boxes (2018) mimic the aesthetic composition of a Donald Judd sculpture, but feminize the boxes that are stacked one above the other along the wall through the depiction of spread thighs and vulvas and the inclusion of a slit cut into the linen of the box, presumably through which a donation (of what exactly is left to the imagination) could be deposited. Other rooms focus on marriage and female relationships, including motherhood as in Zenib Sedira’s Retellling Histories, My Mother Told Me . . . (2003) and sisterhood, such as Rania Matar’s Darine 7 and Dania 8, Beirut, Lebanon (2014), as well as the role of patriarchy in the family structure as addressed by Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s neon installation Hanna bint (daughter of) Ghamar, a reference and challenge to the tradition of patronymic naming in Arab families. Domestic labor in works such as Raeda Saadeh’s Vacuum (2007), wherein she vacuums the Palestinian landscape in a futile act, and Shadi Ghadirian’s untitled work from her series Like Everyday (2000), which depicts veiled women with domestic objects related to care of the household in place of their faces reducing them to identity-less caretakers, take up another theme of the exhibition.

The exhibition is rich with powerful works by a diverse roster of impressive artists. However, I did find some of the organizational thinking around the exhibition and its works to be lacking. The most prominent issue that stood out to me was the normative way “woman” was defined in the eyes of the exhibition. Corporally she is someone with a vagina, who has a menstrual cycle. Socially she is someone who gets married (to a man) and is concerned with aspects of the world read as hegemonically feminine. This is of course not to say that these aren’t aspects of many women’s lives, or that addressing the stereotypically feminine is not a concern for many women (and artists), but the exhibition lacked any investigation of what an alternative womanhood looks like. There is no suggestion of a narrative of womanhood that deviates from the heteronormative or the cis for example. What about queer women? What about trans women? What about individuals who may not define themselves as women but whom society views and treats (or simply raised) as such? These are the individuals whose absence from the exhibition was glaring to me. For an exhibition that touts itself as challenging common conceptions, the normative parameters by which “woman” was defined seemed to sit in sharp contrast.

Additionally, to return to the claim made by the exhibition’s opening text mentioned at the start of this review, that the exhibition will change people’s perceptions (and perhaps even more grandiosely in the press materials, that it will inspire a younger generation), I want to turn away from the works themselves and towards the individuals who were in the galleries with me when I saw the exhibition. I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible that individuals’ perspectives were changed or younger generations couldn’t have been inspired, but when I looked around the rooms, I saw a group of junior scholars receiving a tour, several groups of families whose attire signaled they were Muslim, and a more typical demographic of retired-age individuals one might expect to see at a museum in the middle of a weekday. Again, I don’t know whether any of these individuals had their perspectives altered or were inspired by what they saw at the exhibition, but how can one guarantee that? How can the museum ensure that they attract audiences that have different or more limited understandings of women from the Islamic world than those that are presented in the exhibition? How can LACMA bring in those folks who are more likely to benefit from an expanded idea of women from the Islamic world? If one were to come to the exhibition with notions of women from the Islamic world as silenced or oppressed, there are some works in the exhibition that, without reading the supporting wall text, might seem to reinforce this stereotype, for example, Gazelle Samizay’s Upon My Daughter, which depicts her daughter being restrained through the action of other women tangling and binding her with the thread they use to embroider her wedding dress. With this in mind, it seems a bold and ambitious claim to make that the exhibition will definitively change people’s minds and inspire them.

Regardless, the exhibition is most definitely worth a visit. Bringing together this many diverse artists with ties to the Islamic world in one place provides a rich and dynamic viewing experience. Walking through the exhibition I recognized a number of works and artists from my own classes and students’ projects, many of which I was seeing in person for the first time, and all in one place. No matter how they are defined, as women, as individuals with ties to the Islamic world, they are an impressive group of artists whose work is well worth viewing.

Sascha Crasnow
Lecturer, Islamic Arts and Culture, Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Program, University of Michigan