“The stars align sometimes.” ~ Rania Matar
Rania Matar met with the Friends of Photography of the Cleveland Museum of Art at the Transformer Station on November 17 in Ohio City to conduct a tour of In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar. Organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, it consists of excerpts from four series in color featuring portraits of girls and women, in the US and Lebanon.
After 9/11, the Lebanese-born, Boston-based artist became interested in telling a different story of the Middle East than what Western media portrayed and one that countered “the rhetoric of the news.” Matar also wanted to explore her dual identity; “I was them and us,” she explains. At the time, she worked in a documentary style and she later shifted to portraiture.
The obliteration of stereotypes has continued in Matar’s portraits. Commenting on Samira 17, Bourji El Barajneh Refugee Camp (2016)—in which the subject wears a vibrant red headscarf and meets the viewer’s gaze—Matar says, “[W]hat I love [is]…there’s nothing oppressed about her.” When her portraits taken in the Middle East and the US are viewed as a whole, she feels that the universality “combats the otherness.” Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan has described Matar’s portraits as defying categories such as “simply American,” “simply Arab,” or “simply Muslim, Christian, or Jewish,” which reflects the fact that the Middle East and the West “do not constitute mutually exclusive worldviews.” (1)
Her process is no-frills, without studio lighting or a tripod. Matar, who describes herself as “almost obsessive,” gets right into the action—for example, “climb[ing] all over the bed” when depicting young women in what functions as their private sanctuaries. Matar’s young subjects are often confounded by her use of analog photography (most of the works in the show were shot on film). They’re also prompted to take the photo session more seriously because of not being able to see the results instantly. Matar asks her subjects not to smile, but to look at the camera and express themselves. She monitors the details of the hands, the feet, the eyes, and body language. “The stars align sometimes,” she says. “It’s a matter of seeing it.” Matar uses a medium format camera, and when switching out film after ten shots, she strikes up a conversation. It’s “like pressing the reset button every few minutes,” she says. Expressive and enigmatic portraits follow.
(Quotations are from Matar’s artist talk and from follow-up correspondence by email).
Images – top to bottom:
Matar with Clara 8, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in.
Samira 17, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series Becoming, 2016. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery
Leila and Souraya, Jounieh, Lebanon, from the series Unspoken Conversations, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery
Lavinia 13, Brookline, Massachusetts, from the series Becoming, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery
Yasmine 12, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery
1 – Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, “Introduction.” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.
2 – Lowry, Lois, “Becoming,” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.
3 – Rania Matar, “Artist Statement,” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.
4 – Suan Minot, “Keep Out.” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.