PHOTOGRAPHY / PROJECTS

RAWIYA ART COLLECTIVE: SHE WHO TELLS A STORY

by Yasmine Mattousi

GALLERY

Rawiya means “she who tells a story” in Arabic. The first all-female photography collective from the MENA region, chose the fitting word as their moniker in 2009. Made up of journalists, photographers, documentarians, and anthropologists, Rawiya is dedicated to showing a side of MENA they feel is not given enough spotlight in mainstream media. Aimed at shining a light on narratives that exist outside of the ones typically associated with MENA (conflict, strife, etc.), the collective has made a name for itself with its innovative portraits of the Middle East and its members both physical and personal proximity to their subject matter.

Founding members include Tanya Habjouqa, Tamara Abdul Hadi, Myriam Abdelaziz, Laura Boushnak, and Tasneem Alsultan, who met on photography or assignments throughout the MENA region. The women now work together from bases in several different cities, including Ramallah, Cairo, and Beirut. Some have mixed American and European backgrounds, which lent inspiration to some of their work about the diaspora. They want to shed light on what happens in the Middle East, while giving a voice to those who have left, and those who want to change how the world sees them from the outside.

While working under several different frameworks and viewpoints across MENA, Rawiya shares a common theme: a more compassionate understanding of the region. Some of their work deals with social norms like gender and sexuality in the Middle East, making an effort to photograph both men and women outside of their stereotypical gender roles or expectations. A series photographed by Tamara Abdul Hadi, titled “Picture an Arab Man,” features men in intimate, vulnerable portraits, contrary to the hyper-masculinity often promoted and accepted in MENA. 

Much of the work done by the photographers of Rawiya gives its audience an immersive introduction to life of the contemporary Middle East, almost like a peak behind the curtain of every mainstream media. Portraits often have a stillness about them, giving a sense of calm and proximity to their subjects. Tanya Habjouqa and Tamara Abdul Hadi each exhibited their own series on Palestine, taking a documentarian lens to the Palestinian people in their everyday lives. Images of occupied Palestine demonstrate the complexity of the region, as well as the themes of a collective memory and nationalism. Both series are a mixture of the banalities of life and the atrocities of war. One can find a photo of a man diving into teal sea water, while another photo captures a woman staring blankly at a destroyed apartment building.

In another series photographed by Myriam Abdelaziz, child laborers in Menya, Egypt are caught in cloudy, dusty scenes from the limestone quarries in which they work. The portraits are emotionally divisive, forcing the viewer to examine the beauty of moral atrocity. Abdelaziz acknowledges the duality of the beauty and pain in the series, saying:

“I think beauty can exist in everything—it all depends on how you perceive it. In terms of the viewer, I feel that beauty attracts and then encourages the viewer to pay attention to material that they would dismiss if it were too difficult to look at. Put differently, beauty can make harsh subject matter more accessible to a larger audience.”

Tasneem Alsultan’s project, And Then There Were Women, was inspired by her own experience with marriage and divorce in Saudi Arabia. Her portraits of Saudi Women in positions of bravery and vulnerability, highlighting how often even in the face of controlling politics and ethical constraint, these women are still human beings who experience human emotion. Often the world only hears about the Saudi woman as a concept of someone who does not exercise autonomy over herself. Alsultan’s series aims to challenge that viewpoint, and through a storytelling approach, give the women in her photographs an outlet to just be everyday women.

The group has been firm in how they wish to be represented and seen by the art world and news outlets. Tanya Habjouqa told Vogue in a 2016 interview: 

“There was no challenge specifically because we were women in the Middle East. On the contrary it probably helped us gain access to a multitude of stories…Partially because there are a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about the role of women in Arab society. It is a far more diverse society (ies) than people assume.”

The narrative of Middle Eastern women being confined by their gender is one that Rawiya specifically wants to break down and challenge through their work. With exhibitions shown around the world, the group’s voice has been amplified outside of the photography or art worlds, giving them a large platform on social, economic, political, and religious issues. Yet one of their biggest goals for artists, educators, journalists and photographers like them is accessibility. If the MENA region became more accessible, the narrative around it to the rest of the world would begin to transform.

                    GALLERY

Trashtails by Myriam AbdelAziz/ © Rawiya Collective 

Trashtails by Myriam AbdelAziz/ © Rawiya Collective 

Tamara Abdul Hadi / © Rawiya Collective 

Tamara Abdul Hadi / © Rawiya Collective 

Tamara Abdul Hadi / © Rawiya Collective 

Tasneem Alsultan/ © Rawiya Collective 

Tanya Habjouqa / © Rawiya Collective 

Tanya Habjouqa / © Rawiya Collective 

Tanya Habjouqa / © Rawiya Collective