For these Sunday posts in January, I want to listen to how people with immigration or refugee experiences find sustenance and purpose in difficult times.
The women in Rania Matar’s photographs are self-assured, reflective, and beautiful. Some appear downcast or mournful; others are slyly amused. Some gaze directly at the camera; others stare into the distance or look inward, eyes closed. Around them are signs that all is not right in the world – razor wire, broken glass, ocean trash, the moldering carpet of a once-glorious theater. In various poses, the women claim the spaces around them – climbing, reclining, floating, peering through archways, standing atop ruins, or simply posing with confidence. The one thing they are not is passive.
To back up a step, I’ve been fascinated recently with the artwork of Rania Matar a Lebanese-Palestinian-American photographer who splits her time between Boston, New York, and Beirut. I found her work through Sukoon, an excellent journal of Arab-themed art and literature founded by my friend Rewa Zeinati. Rania’s subjects are primarily Lebanese, Palestinian, and American women. I couldn’t help but view her work in light of the violence in Gaza and Lebanon, and I reached out to ask if she would talk about her portraits.
She immediately explained that “portraits” doesn’t fully capture her collaborative approach. She and her subjects choose locations together, explore them together, and, in her recent work in Beirut, frequently find settings that reflect the impacts of decades of war.
“We always go somewhere and end up somewhere better than we expected,” she said in a phone call. “There’s an element of risk-taking, whether we’re climbing into places or getting in the water. I’m in awe of how much these women are willing to do.
“In Lebanon, there’s an element of danger that’s part of life, period. So, taking smaller risks during the shoot seems to connect with our relationship with the place.”
Rania was born in Lebanon and left when she was twenty, nine years after civil war broke out in 1975. She began her professional life as an architect, but grew serious about photography after 9/11, wanting to portray her daughters and other Arab women with more nuance and humanity than the “us vs. them” narratives she saw in the media. The work led to multiple exhibitions, a Guggenheim fellowship, and four books. Her most recent project, “50 Years Later – Where Do I Go?” explores the ongoing fallout of the Lebanese Civil War.
“It defined who I am,” she said. “I left the country because of it, and I feel like history keeps repeating itself. Now these women who are the age I was when I left are often scrambling to leave the country. Every person has a personal story in relating to their country, but it’s also part of a collective story. Even the women who don’t live in Lebanon anymore, they keep coming back, like I do.”
Her father was Palestinian, and I asked how the war in Gaza has affected her art. It’s too soon to tell, she said. But no violence is ever fully isolated. The destruction from decades of war, the devastating 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut, and her father’s death last year all find expression in her photographs, she said.
One of her most arresting photos, to me, shows a woman standing on the backs of seats in an ornate but decrepit theater. The woman, Rhea, is a performance artist, and the setting is the Piccadilly Theatre in Beirut, a prominent arts venue in the 1960s and 70s. Despite repeated plans and promises to restore the theatre, it continues to decay.
And yet, for all the loss the photo portrays, there’s something disruptive, even playful, in the way Rhea strides atop the seats in a flowing dress, her arms splayed as if considering taking flight.
“Too often we see women from the Arab world portrayed as oppressed or illiterate,” Rania told me. “To me, they’re goddesses. In this work I’m making, these women have nothing oppressed about them.”
Another young woman contacted Rania online, embodying contradictions she found fascinating. She wore a black head covering yet wanted to be portrayed to the world. Her Instagram profile read “Follow me, I’m toxic.” They met in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Mediterranean coast. The woman, Alae, holds a small mirror that captures her focused gaze while the cityscape lies beyond. Just to the right of her mirror is the grain silo damaged in the 2020 explosion, a site of horrific destruction bathed in warm sunlight and set against the tranquil sea.
I asked Rania the question that has animated this blog series: What gives you sustenance, artistically or personally, during difficult times? But I also realized the question was unnecessary. Like my Ukrainian friend Olesia Markovic, my Afghan neighbor Atiqullah Ayubi, and the exiled Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut, Rania answers not through ideas but through her life. Her work, and the trust she builds in creating it, shines light against dehumanization.
One last thought. My favorite work of Rania’s is not a photograph but a short video she posted at the new year. (Take a quick look–but then come back!) In it, a woman appears quivering in a mirror lying in shallow water on a sandy beach. A wave washes over, turning her reflection into a shimmering blur. Her likeness begins to reappear until another wave washes over.
It delighted me with all the possible metaphors at play: We’re united in an ocean of humanity. The only constant is change. Clarity may last for only an instant. And celebrating that flicker of clarity–that stunning flash of light in the water–is worthwhile.
But I’m also reminded that what you see depends on where you stand. So I wanted to know what Rania sees in the video.
“To me, it’s about the new year and things beginning and ending,” she said. “But it’s also about the Mediterranean and about erasure and erasing. I kept relating it back to what’s happening in Gaza. I felt like it works on different levels.
“I’m hoping that people can see that in a lot of these images. I don’t want them to be sad pictures of destruction. You see enough of that. For me, it’s also about creativity and being present in the moment and having agency over it. It’s about putting your imprint on the place.”
Photos courtesy Rania Matar. See more at raniamatar.com.
Rania’s photo by Helena Goessens.