Selections talks to six talented female photographers from the Arab world and Iran whose work spans the gulf between East and West, transcending language and culture to tell universal stories

Each of the six women interviewed in this issue deals with this in their own way, some choosing to address the gulf between East and West directly in their work, others approaching it more obliquely. Yet ultimately, each achieves a similar alchemy — using photography as a tool, they are able to transform and translate their personal experiences into a universal format, rendering their subject matter accessible to people of any background, challenging harmful stereotypes and championing new perspectives.

Lebanese photographer Randa Mirza discusses the image as a marker of identity, her work uncovering the lost pre-Islamic myths that centre on female power and the artist’s role as a cultural ambassador.

Lebanese artist Randa Mirza discusses the links between identity and image and the artist as ambassador

In the same way that photography initially grew out of classical portrait painting, for many contemporary artists video installation grows from photography. Born in 1978, Lebanese artist Randa Mirza is “basically a photographer,” as she puts it, but in recent years she has branched out into video, installation and even a live music and video performance, Love and Revenge, which is touring globally this year.

“It shows a lot of clips from old Egyptian movies and the roles of women in these movies,” she says. “For the Arab public, it’s like they are rediscovering images with which we grew up and that played a role in our imagination, while for a Western public it’s like discovering a completely different vision that they’re not at all in touch with.”

As an Arab artist living in Marseille, she is — slightly reluctantly — placed in the role of cultural emissary. “I think for curators and museums and all the people who work on exhibiting Arab art it’s very important to challenge the images of Arabs in the media, so in some projects I play on this,” she says. “For other projects, it’s not at all my intent — but somehow as Arab artists we are playing the role of ambassadors. I don’t know how to feel about this.”

In her recent series of installation pieces, El Zohra wasn’t born in a day, a collection of dioramas blending elements of narrative, photography and sculpture, Mirza focused on addressing an Arab audience “by digging deeper into the collective identity.”

The series explores forgotten or obscured myths from the pre-Islamic period known as the Jahiliyya, many of them featuring powerful female figures. “I knew there were three goddesses that were at the head of the pantheon of gods in the Jahiliyya,” she explains, “but I was also amazed to see that a lot of stories turn around the mother goddess and her disappearance from the collective imagination since the beginning of monotheistic religion. This is why I focused on them, because as a feminist I’m very interested in bringing back those stories and highlighting their legacy.”

She is currently working on a further diorama for Musiqa, a touring exhibition due to open at Cité de la Musique in Paris in April 2018, exploring Arab music from the Jahiliyya until today. Based on a pre-Islamic myth, it explores the role of female slaves.

Featured image: Randa Mirza, The Year of the Elephant, 2014, diorama, credits: Galerie Tanit and the artist

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 152-153.