“I so much believe in the positive contributions that women are making in the Middle East,” says Janet Rady, curator of “I Am,” a recently opened exhibit at the American University Museum featuring works by 31 female artists with roots in 12 countries in the region. “They’re not all behind burqas, chained to the kitchen sink, not allowed out without their husbands, you know.”
“I Am,” a traveling exhibition that has already stopped in Amman, Jordan, and London, aims to challenge such stereotypes and shatter misconceptions of Middle Eastern women through photographs, paintings and mixed-media works that reflect their varied life experiences.
“If anyone has a stereotype of the Middle East, one of the strongest stereotypes is related to women,” says the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, founder and president of Caravan, the nonprofit organization behind the exhibit. “We hope the exhibition becomes an encounter point … with the goal of changing and broadening horizons.”
Through the range of works, the organizers seek to reveal the diversity of Middle Eastern women’s experiences, and to confront Western assumptions that women in the region are all oppressed and living in conflict zones.
“These days, you look at the media, the reports coming out of the Middle East, [women having agency] is possibly the last thing that you think about when you see these pictures of, say, Yemen,” Rady says.
Chandler, an American Episcopal priest who was formerly based in Cairo, began Caravan in 2009 to build bridges and promote peace between the Middle East and the West, as well as between different faith communities, through artistic dialogue.
The artists featured in “I Am” — most of whom created work specifically for the exhibit — have Muslim and Christian backgrounds and represent much of the Arab world, along with Iran. Two artists, Helen Zughaib and Manal Deeb — both of Palestinian heritage — live in the D.C. area.
Deeb’s compelling mixed-media piece “Golden” shows a woman’s face, streaked by drips of paint and juxtaposed with a burst of Arabic letters. Zughaib’s quieter work in ink, “The Secrets They Carry,” repeatedly traces the Arabic saying “There are many secrets hidden under the abaya” against a black-and-white outline of the robe-like garment traditionally worn by some Muslim women.
Perhaps not surprising for an exhibit that foregrounds identity and self-expression, some of the most powerful pieces take the form of self-portraits or portraits of women.
Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi’s photographic print “Bullets Revisited #15” evokes and subverts Orientalist art with its scantily clad female subject posing against a backdrop of bullet casings, her face and arms covered with Arabic calligraphy.
In Bahraini artist Lulwa Al Khalifa’s painting “From the Outside 2,” a beautiful, dark-haired woman stares out piercingly from behind a lattice-like pattern of blurry white lines. In an untitled piece, Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel captures three images of a woman in a red, white and blue hijab, posing in the prayer stances of each of the three Abrahamic religions.
“They are working with different backgrounds, different aesthetics — which, to me, actually makes their work more interesting,” Rady says of the featured artists. “But beyond that, it’s universal art that they’re creating.”
American University Museum at the Katzen Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW; through Oct. 22, free.
Engaging with conflict
The American University Museum is simultaneously hosting a second Middle Eastern art exhibit, “Between Two Rounds of Fire, The Exile of the Sea,” featuring works by 24 modern and contemporary Arab artists from the private collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. The exhibit, open through Dec. 17, examines violence and conflict, both literal and metaphysical. Curator Karim Sultan has brought together pieces by established art figures including Etel Adnan, Walid Raad and Mona Hatoum with works by artists less known outside the region. For example, the 20th-century avant-garde Iraqi painter Shakir Hassan Al Said — whose 1983 work “The Victorious” is inspired by deconstructionism and Sufism — is “definitely an artist who deserves more attention,” Sultan says.