LOS ANGELES — Months before it opened, Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) promised to draw attention to one of the demographics most neglected by United States art institutions: female-identifying artists in or from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA). Like so many gender- or ethnicity-themed group shows, Women Defining Women suffers from its limitations even as it gives much-needed and deserved attention to the artists. But, unlike more international or Euro-American showcases of women artists, it also suffers from poorly defined parameters and a weak understanding of its own premise and artists.
Featuring 75 works by 42 artists, the show is at once too vast and too narrow. “Middle East” is something of a misnomer; the website states that the show focuses on “women artists who were born or live in what can broadly be termed Islamic societies” — though that isn’t quite correct either, as it includes artists from Israel (two Palestinian citizens of Israel and one Jewish Israeli citizen) and Arab countries with large Christian populations like Lebanon. Such nebulous borders allow the show to expand beyond the predominantly Arab “Middle East” and diffuse the emphasis on a part of the world with which the US has perpetuated a churning campaign of belligerence and brutality. Yet LACMA doesn’t bother to avoid or interrogate the colonial designation “Middle East,” either. It lumps diverse cultures under the umbrella of Islam, thus perpetuating the conflation common in the US of “Middle Eastern” and Muslim, which disregards the multiple religions practiced in the region.
In fact, for a show that covers such a broad swath of the world, from North Africa to Western and Central Asia, along with artists in the diaspora, the nations represented are wildly uneven. Of the 42 artists, about a dozen are from Iran. In contrast, major nations are not represented at all, most notably Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And while so many SWANA and Islamic artists lack US visibility, some names pop up again and again, in particular LA-based Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman and New York-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, two of the exhibition’s highest profile names in the US.
The show was curated by Linda Komaroff, LACMA’s head of Art of the Middle East, and supported largely by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, so the logic for such uneven numbers is unclear, but at the very least it indicates disorganization, if not biases, lack of research, dependency on what was available, or good old-fashioned funding sources. Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the show was never really a serious undertaking. The opening wall text states: “Frequently perceived as voiceless and invisible, these artists are neither.” Perceived by whom? Aside from the condescension, the vagueness of the statement is almost laughable. (It goes on to mention their “story,” not “stories.”)
Most of all, nearly nowhere does the show effectively shatter the stereotypes that it claims to oppose. Works like “Red Seed” (2019), a blood-red Georgia O’Keeffe-esque wire weaving, and the related ink on paper “The Flower Inside Me” (2019), both by Turkish artist Gülay Semercioğlu, are likely meant to challenge stereotypes of female oppression in Islamic cultures, but in this context they feel less like an expression of feminist agency than a revelation to a White, Western audience that women in Islamic countries are aware of — and even address — their anatomy. The problem isn’t with the artwork itself, but with its superficial positioning, as if Islamic and Arab countries have no other forms of feminist activism or discourse, as if repression and patriarchy were not ongoing issues that women have long battled. Even as a valid gesture of reclaiming one’s own body, the artworks are cut off from any larger conversations on oppression, abuses, and other hardships — from period poverty to challenges faced by pregnant women and mothers without adequate health care, or women with no access to birth control and abortions.
Similarly, Iranian artist Tahmineh Monzavi’s photographs of a trans woman named Tina show sensitivity toward her subject but viewers get little information about the story behind the photos. Rather than traditional wall texts, LACMA opted for small screens on the wall with e-texts that viewers can scroll through, meaning that the texts are separated for the corresponding works and you get all at once. By the time I scrolled to the texts about Tina I had nearly forgotten the photos. It’s also worth noting that Monzavi’s photos are among the only works in the show that address the daily lives of trans and queer women so audiences learn almost nothing about the varying degrees of LGBTQ+ struggles in different countries.
More traditional portrayals of SWANA women are also stripped of any critical edge. It’s hard to glean the intended takeaway for Palestinian (labeled Israel-born) artist Samah Shihadi’s charcoal drawing of an elderly woman making rounds of bread (“Dough,” 2018) besides craving my Lebanese grandmother’s homemade bread. Likewise, without more background, a handful of pieces that play on the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, like Russian-born Algerian Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s “Silence Noir” (2016) — which places stiletto heels on a prayer mat — are reduced to one-liners.
What these works do suggest is a disconnect between the show’s purported mission to empower women and any workable sense of how to accomplish that.
Pieces that show some interiority, like Sara Al Haddad’s (United Arab Emirates) abject headless self-portrait sculpture made of pink and red yarn, offer more food for thought and many rich, understated works deserve more attention than the curation invites. But, overall, the concept of empowerment comes across like jargon from a boardroom. Maybe it would be empowering to see a picture of a woman filling out a US census form with a box for SWANA instead of one that forces her to identify as White, but that doesn’t exist yet. For now, choosing works that foreground women artists’ narratives and self-definitions would at least be illuminating to US viewers, if not especially empowering.
It’s not LACMA’s responsibility to represent every possible identity. But I left the show feeling that I had encountered an image of “Middle Eastern women” assembled by and for White Americans, no matter how genuine each individual work might be. What I did not see was a reflection of many of the SWANA and diaspora women I’ve known throughout my life, including my grandmother, aunts, and extended family; of women responding to their vilification in North America and Europe since 9/11 and more recently; of all that defining oneself as a woman can encompass. Or of a real raison d’être for the show.
Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through September 24. The exhibition was curated by Linda Komaroff.