This photo essay is an attempt to register the complex political valences of certain shared formal preoccupations in the cinematic, photographic, videographic, and new media works/interventions of Shirin Neshat, Lalla Essaydi, Mona Hatoum, Ana Lily Amirpour, Amina Sboui, and Nadia El Fani. What is contested here is the so-called readability of images, especially those by Middle Eastern women, as these coalesced during the late colonial and postcolonial periods and as they continue today. The “photo-grams” that constitute the essay function neither as illustrations nor as counter-readings, but as frames of a lost or imagined film these filmmaker-photographer-new media activists might have made—despite or perhaps because of their political-geographical-temporal dispersion—as a kind of collective.

In “Writing Is Better than a Face Lift,” published originally in 1992 as the preface to a collection of essays by a group of Tunisian feminists, Tunisiennes en devenir: Comment les femmes vivent (Cérès-Productions), the late Fatima Mernissi rather playfully ties a discursive knot drawing together writing, portraiture, and fashion in what amounts to a brief account of the challenges and rewards of forming women's writing collectives in the Maghreb. Addressing the members of the Tunisian collective as well as reading and writing women across the Arab world, Mernissi writes, “I don't know whether you've noticed how incredibly young, energetic and radiant Nawal El Saadawi, Hannaan al-Shaykh, Assia Djebar and Liana Badr look, to name but a few. And the sheen of their hair, the sparkle in their eyes! Writing, I tell you, is a miracle the equal of all the revitalizing creams and energy treatments.”1 

It is unlikely that any of Mernissi's putative readers had in fact met even one of these famous women writers, who hailed from Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, and Palestine and who, even at the time, were for the most part no longer living in the countries of their birth. But it is more than likely, and indeed Mernissi is counting on this, that their images—televisual, on book jackets, in newspapers and magazines—would have been familiar to the literate women of Morocco and Tunisia with whom she was then at work. What is at stake in her prose, in the injunction not just to read and write but, moreover, to take notice, to look, is a very precise intervention in the situation of women activists and artists at the complex intersections of the legible and the visible, and that with respect to both creation and reception.

In Mernissi's essay, writing, as vehicle and as medium of expression, is thus assimilated into and positioned as a substitute or analogue for, if not actual then at least photographic formations of female appearance, ranging from hair and skin care to cosmetic surgery. What radiates, then, in a conceit that Mernissi extends across her essay, is an implicit acknowledgment that among the arsenal of gestures belonging to the history of women is the bringing of a pen or pencil to bear on the face, on the lips, around the eyes. And that what emerges from this gestural history, itself inscribed in words and images, is an intimate relation of writing and image making, of figural fashioning. Writing, in the register both playful and serious in which Mernissi here deploys it, will make a woman look in a double sense: first she will appear, enter representation in a particular fashion; but also she will look at, notice and look to or toward other women.

In this photo essay I want to trace, with respect to and indeed within the visible and the legible, some of the stakes and sequellae of Mernissi's leitmotif. To do this I will engage, all too briefly, with a collection—what I will try to demonstrate amounts to a virtual collective—of women artists and activists, not all principally filmmakers, but all of whom do work or have worked with film and photography and, simultaneously and perhaps most strikingly, with writing. All have their origins in the Muslim world, although not all are Muslim. Two hail from Iran, one from Morocco, one from Lebanon, and the last from Tunisia, so their cultural and linguistic origins are quite varied: Persia, the Levant, the Maghreb; Farsi, Arabic, English, French. And they all share the experience, although again very differently, of displacement or exile. My gambit here, and hence the rather unsettled nature of its presentation or performance across these pages, is to try to follow where Mernissi's text leads, to deploy writing with an aim toward seeing, while deploying a series of images with an aim toward something less visual than gestural or ideational, or, in another vocabulary, “percepts” toward “concepts.”2 

I would like to begin, however, with an image captured not by, but of, a woman, a rather famous image made by a very famous man, even if less known for his photography than for his scholarship and even activism. Figure 1 is a photograph taken in 1960 by none other than Pierre Bourdieu, at the time making a return trip to Algeria, where he served in a war he opposed, and to which he returned as a sociologist very clearly sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence, which would finally arrive two years later. The image can stand in for the title of this photo essay, since it emphasizes three, or even four, of its elements: fabric, movement, femininity, and the photographic, if not photography as such. Bourdieu was not especially proud of this photo, which he found a bit too, in his own words, “pre-interpreted”—that is, speaking a bit too directly to the sociologist's desire to find something of a dissonance in the coexistence of the traditional and the modern.3 Commenting on the photo, Craig Calhoun agreed, although he detected in it, in excess of its obvious meanings, “a confident woman moving about on her own.”4 And that may be true. But there is also a certain element of disguise, as the traditional and the modern have already begun to shift or exchange roles, or even a certain tension, between the fabric and mask and the wind that reveals a dress, long tresses, and high-heeled shoes. But what does need to be stressed here is that the see-ability, as it were—that is, the very visible meanings immanent to and indeed fashioning the photo—also imply forms of legibility. It will be the tension between these two processes, the seen and the read, both of which occupy, after all, the visual field, that will organize my comments here.

FIGURE 1.

Pierre Bourdieu, Woman on Scooter, 1960. Fondation Pierre Bourdieu and Camera Austria.

FIGURE 1.

Pierre Bourdieu, Woman on Scooter, 1960. Fondation Pierre Bourdieu and Camera Austria.

Now, legibility or readability in the visual implies more than just a semiotic practice of decoding. James C. Scott, in his Seeing Like a State (1998), proposes “legibility” as a crucial way in which the state apparatus—but also the corporate apparatus—simplifies, organizes, records, and monitors what would otherwise be “exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices.”5 Thus consider figure 2, taken the same year as Bourdieu's picture by Marc Garanger, a French military photographer in Algeria, whose assignment was to photograph Algerian women in internment camps in order to fabricate identity cards.6 Following the leads of Scott and Michel Foucault, Susan Slyomovics has demonstrated the ways in which Garanger's photographs belong to a history of anthropometric technologies, from fingerprinting to photography and their institutional archiving, through which colonial controls “dovetailed” with the biopolitical, disciplinary regimes already at work in Europe.7 This act of identification that Giorgio Agamben has called “biopolitical tattooing” restores to the legible, colonial order what would remain otherwise the illegible and indeed invisible tattoo of the Kabyle woman in Garanger's photo, forced to unveil herself before a doubly strange man (neither countryman nor member of her family).8 Here the dislocation is neither the (frozen, captured) movement of a “confident woman” nor the friction of modernity and tradition in the meeting of the hejab and high heels. In the internment camp, dislocation and exposure amount to disappearance and death, “biological life without any mediation.”9 

FIGURE 2.

Marc Garanger, Femme Algérienne, 1960. © Marc Garanger.

FIGURE 2.

Marc Garanger, Femme Algérienne, 1960. © Marc Garanger.

Like Bourdieu's photograph, Garanger's emphasizes four of the elements of this essay's title, but it does so without any of Bourdieu's hesitation about the ideological, political, and sociological functioning of the photo as such. Garanger reduces these elements to two related processes: dislocation and relocation. The first includes the photo's decontextualization through the movement of a population to an internment camp. It continues in the exposure of the Kabyle woman through the forced removal of any fabric covering her head and face. The second includes the frontal, static staging of the image and the focusing of the subject's gaze. It continues in the reduction and stabilization of photographic meaning and function through its submission to a colonial, graphic apparatus. The entire process can be summed up as the defeat of a potentially inexhaustible, visible construction and the victory of a legibility intended to fix the relation of an image to the body it represents.

Finally, I would like to add a third image to this series of dislocations and relocations. In Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger (1993), Dennis Adams reproduces ten of Garanger's photos, now détournés, and folds them into a folio in which the visible and the readable seem once more to collapse into immanence, the Algerian woman's unveiling now articulated as re-covering and recovery.10 “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions,” writes Susan Sontag, but with figures 3, 4, and 5 we might say rather that photographs function through a system of relays in which writing invariably plays a role.11 Thus the “pre-interpretation” of Bourdieu, the anthropometric linkages established between image, name, date of birth, et cetera in Garanger, and finally the biblio-graphism or book form of Adams, which attempts to fold the alternations of covering and uncovering, veiling and unveiling, decay and restoration, into the visual itself (or onto the invisible that it clothes). Here writing is anything but the “miracle” to which Mernissi assimilates it. Or if it is, it is the rather dubious miracle of the collapse of the visual, of the image itself, reduced to its (pre)established meaning. But of course there are many ways to see, and therefore to read.

FIGURE 3.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 3.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 4.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 4.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 5.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 5.

Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger, 1993. Courtesy the artist.

Adams's photographic series has the advantage of restoring, through its literal unfolding or page turning, the time of a reading or scansion not immediately apparent in the photographs of Bourdieu or Garanger. What it seeks to uncover or restore is the text these images supposedly already were, the ruins of the French colonial enterprise in Algeria, the archaeology of which was already available, for example in Malek Alloula's 1986 book The Colonial Harem.12 Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger functions as a form of photomontage in which, as Sontag correctly notes, “all photos wait to be explained,” but here not by a caption, but by another photo. What it creates is a critical or counter-legibility: not, however, Mernissi's woman writing in order to appear, but woman appearing in order to signify.

This difference between “woman writing in order to appear” and “woman appearing in order to signify” is the operative distinction at work in this essay and, I believe, at least in part, what Mernissi means to get at with her characterization of writing as a miracle within the register of the visible, as tongue-in-cheek as it may seem. Against the colonial and the postcolonial reduction of the visible to the legible, what is proposed here is not a pure visibility, but a complex enfolding and engendering of the one within the other. We are continually tempted by two forms of reduction: of the image to a text (legibility), and of the visible to the figurative (verisimilitude). Each reduction requires a rule—iconography or resemblance, for example. And each enforces a certain transparency on the image.13 The images assembled in the rest of this essay, in stunning, beautiful, and original ways, deploy forms of density and opacity that, for all that, construct lucid alternatives to both reductions. They do this by refusing to assign the legible or the visible to their proper places. To use Mernissi's phrase, they construct “dreams of trespass.”14 It will come as no surprise, then, that their formal “trespasses” are articulated with the material “trespasses” of historically socially gendered spaces: the house, the harem, the dressing room, the bath, the garden, the public square, and so on.

In sum, the photographic works of Bourdieu, Garanger, and Adams, despite their crucial differences, insist on a certain reduction of the visible to the readable, on the legibility of images as such. And these run the gamut from a commitment to legibility (Garanger), to a nervousness about legibility (Bourdieu), to the construction of a counter-legibility (Adams). In the images and words that follow, I want to propose not a counter-legibility or counter-reading but what Catherine Russell, following Walter Benjamin and Jürgen Habermas, calls a “rescuing critique,” that is, an explicitly constructed montage of word-images through which are “awakened” “forms of expressive gesture, in a language of the body.”15 These indices of “redemption,” to echo Russell's Benjaminian vocabulary, render sensible new spaces, forms, and configurations already emerging, if too often imperceptible, from the kinds of gestures through which women's writing and image making, indeed their indiscernible relation, Mernissi asks us to notice. The photographs—or, better, photo-grams—that make up the bulk of this essay, then, function less as illustrations than as frames of a lost or imagined film these filmmaker-photographer-new media activists might have made, despite or perhaps because of their political-geographical-temporal dispersion, as a kind of virtual collective.

If we can speak here, as Russell does, of “dialectical images” or, in Benjamin's words, of “dialectics at a standstill,” it is because these images, when linked to one another in montage, assume a form of latent, frozen, or incipient movement in which conscious artistic intention and unconscious, oneiric, or automatic social-historical forms or poses inhere at the same time as gesture or dream image. Thus, each image, positioned between an image of passing and another of arrival, animates itself in its own division (no longer this, not yet that) and gestures, literally, toward a new readability-visibility: a complex figuration through which historicity and sensibility find themselves fundamentally and immanently re-thought.

Shirin Neshat's (b. 1957, Iran) films have also been characterized by forms of location and dislocation. Having emigrated from Iran on the eve of the 1979 Revolution, she was nevertheless able to work in the country until 1996, when she was banned because of the political content of her films. She has since had to shoot in Turkey and Morocco, and used the latter to impersonate the country of her birth in her 2009 adaptation of Shahmush Parsipur's novel Women without Men (1989), for example (fig. 6). Nevertheless, this is by far her most historically located film: it takes place in 1953, exactly, with the coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's first democratically elected president, as its backdrop. Her previous films, although sometimes geographically and topographically fluid or indistinct, are very precisely, indeed formally, located: dual-projection museum installations in which viewers occupy a space between two facing screens, in particular the trilogy comprised of Turbulent (1998, fig. 7), Rapture (1999, fig. 8), and Fervor (2000, fig. 9), and subsequently Soliloquy (2000, fig. 10). Thus the spectator comes to occupy, literally as it were, the space of a division or bifurcation, which is exactly how figure 6, in which Casablanca plays Tehran, is composed. Neshat's work is thus characterized by an ongoing interplay between locality and localization, between a series of represented and shifting geographies and related forms of bodily emplacement or displacement of the spectator. What may cognitively elude the spectator with respect to represented forms returns as a felt sense of bodily movement.

FIGURE 6.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 6.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 7.

Shirin Neshat, still from Turbulent, 1998. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 7.

Shirin Neshat, still from Turbulent, 1998. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 8.

Shirin Neshat, still from Rapture, 1999. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 8.

Shirin Neshat, still from Rapture, 1999. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 9.

Shirin Neshat, still from Fervor, 2000. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 9.

Shirin Neshat, still from Fervor, 2000. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 10.

Shirin Neshat, still from Soliloquy, 2000. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 10.

Shirin Neshat, still from Soliloquy, 2000. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

Despite its more conventional, theatrical frontality in comparison with the earlier installation work, Women without Men deploys and indeed insists upon this same formal, bifurcating procedure. And again, like the earlier work, this division of the visual field coincides with the gendered divisions of spaces both public and private, devotional and architectural. Thus, walking through Tehran in Women without Men, a walk reminiscent of the filmmaker's own in Soliloquy, Zarin, one of the four major characters, will encounter a group of women absorbed in ritualized lamentation, immediately followed by an encounter with a group of men prostrating themselves in prayer, the two groups an echo of similar, same-sex rituals from Rapture and Fervor. However, if Neshat was drawn to Parsipur's novel as the source for this new cinematic departure from the installation work, it was not only because of its explicit thematization and comparison of five women's lives (Neshat reduced the number to four), but also because the novel deploys what would otherwise be incommensurable formal-generic techniques that serve, finally, to open up imaginative and political spaces within the prose itself, something Neshat has transferred to a register at once visual, auditory, and legible. “All that we wanted,” says the film's final voice-over (a “we” identified with the film's resurrected, emancipatory figure, Munis) “was to find a new form … a new way. Release.” To grasp this more-than-formal innovation requires a detour through, again, photography.

Neshat's oeuvre also includes several series of monumental photographs in which the visual field is, again, dislocated or divided against itself by graphic forms, in particular script, either on the bodies of her subjects or superimposed upon the photographs themselves (figs. 11, 12, 13).16 Thus the legible detaches itself from the visible in a kind of interference through which, to echo Scott, the “exceptionally complex, illegible and local” confronts the simplified, the legible and, here, the fundamentalist. The text in figure 11 is a verse by the Iranian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967), the lyricism and natural metaphors of which also run through Women without Men:

I'll be greeting the sun again
and the stream that flowed in me
and the clouds that were my long thoughts
and the painful growth of the aspens in the grove
that passed through droughts with me.17 
FIGURE 11.

Shirin Neshat, I Am Its Secret, 1993. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 11.

Shirin Neshat, I Am Its Secret, 1993. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 12.

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, 1996. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 12.

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, 1996. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 13.

Shirin Neshat, Nida, 2012. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 13.

Shirin Neshat, Nida, 2012. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

Although writing does not explicitly enter the frame of Women without Men, there is a persistent graphic impulse at work throughout, and figure 14, a still from the film, makes clear that writing was never absent from the filmmaker's mind or from her visual field. Here it will perhaps be enough to quickly analyze the hermeneutic game condensed in the image. “A woman is like a flower,” says Amir Kahn, the domineering, seemingly devout but ultimately self-serving brother of Munis and the object of her friend Faezeh's (pictured here in the floral skirt) love. “After she blooms, she quickly begins to fade.”18 The film will take the initial analogy seriously, not just to refute Amir Khan's conclusion, but to divert it toward a theater of visual forms. Zarin will float in a stream as foliage gathers around her, Munis will leap into a pool while an overhead shot shows her dress and underclothes bursting into bloom, Fakhri will present her houseguests with floral dresses for a party, paper flowers are planted in the orchard, and so on. What is at stake here is a figural process illegible to the one who seems to instigate it, a distinctly cinematic cultivation through which the very coordinates of appearance find themselves dis-placed: the woman-flower equation literalized, with figure and ground, the visible and legible, oscillating in a dizzying interplay.19 This same interplay between surface and depth, inside and outside, is evident in Farrokhzad's verse and by extension in Neshat's photo upon which it is inscribed.

FIGURE 14.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 14.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

In commingling the legible and visible registers, Neshat seems to share some of the concerns of another Muslim émigré artist, the Moroccan Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956), who creates her elaborately staged photographs of women by covering the bodies, fabrics, rooms, and furnishings of her subjects with Arabic script written with henna, a traditional material for the decoration of women's bodies by other women (figs. 15, 16). Although Essaydi's sources are by and large pictorial, often painterly, drawing from and working against an inherited, Orientalist vocabulary, and while Neshat's are more literary or cinematic with an attention to and insistence upon contemporary appearance, both practices often have the effect of producing what appear to be forms of camouflage, as if human figures are somehow merging with their surroundings, despite the fact that these are anything but backgrounds (fig. 17). But in both cases they pose challenges to any number of mimetic procedures while offering alternatives of their own, what might be called fabrics of exile or dislocation. Here I think both artists play on two contrasting and potentially dissonant or dissident senses of mimesis: first, the mimetic as a certain accord between what is represented and the means through which that transpires; and second, mimicry, in which effects of blending or camouflage present a certain disaccord between a form and its background, the one failing to stand out and so disappearing into the other (for example, the becoming-flower of Neshat's protagonists). If the first sort of mimesis is vaguely Aristotelian, meaning, not in principle requiring any form but writing (according to the philosopher, a drama has no need to be performed, simply read), the second, mimicry, makes light its first requirement, even if it marshals its powers as a defense against that light.

FIGURE 15.

Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories, 2004. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 15.

Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories, 2004. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 16.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc, 2008. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 16.

Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc, 2008. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 17.

Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

FIGURE 17.

Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

It is the burden of Neshat's and Essaydi's works, then, to abrogate any accord between the visible and its proper place. And this means too a practice that undermines any neat distinction between the voyeur and the exhibitionist, the absorptive and the theatrical, and, by extension, the private and the public. We can feel this first as the deconstruction of the picture plane or cinematic screen through the undecidable competition between reading and seeing. We can feel it as well in Essaydi's deconstruction of the harem, which in her treatment is neither the publicly sanctioned fantasy of male or colonial privilege nor the privative space of female retreat or solidarity. Rather, the harem emerges as a new space entirely.

Fatima Mernissi has used the Arabic word sarab, which we might translate as “mirage” but suggests the appearance of a flow where one would expect solidity, to characterize Essaydi's photographic constructions.20 And we could use the same word with respect to Neshat's work. In Women without Men there is a continuous correlation between women's activism and the becoming-sarab of all forms of established spatial and temporal solidities. In Women without Men, the resurrection of Munis is its most powerful figuration. And we can feel this figural force at work in the vortices and cascades of letters across her photos.

Neshat and Essaydi were both preceded in this project by another Middle Eastern woman artist, Mona Hatoum (b. 1952, Lebanon), who during the Lebanese civil war made what is still perhaps her most famous work, the art video Measures of Distance (1988, figs. 18, 19), during a two-week residency in Vancouver.21,Measures of Distance is constructed of a series of photographs, each dissolving into the next, for approximately fifteen minutes. The effect is of an almost continuous enlargement or tracking shot that eventually reveals Hatoum's mother, naked in the shower. Across the screen, from left to right in Arabic script, is the text of a letter from the mother to her artist daughter. Hatoum recites an English translation as a voice-over, while in the background we hear a recorded conversation between Hatoum and her mother in which the two speak very openly about female sexuality, the project they are currently constructing, and Hatoum's father's objections to the whole thing. Crucially at stake here is the distance between two places or locations, between two bodies longing for one another, but also a distance that reinscribes itself in the image itself. We feel this in Hatoum's image through the experience of the pull of the writing, which diverts the gaze into the time and blindness of reading, so to speak, while setting up a kind of physical barrier to the image Hatoum's camera continually approaches but never quite reaches, which here is the maternal territory itself.22 

FIGURE 18.

Mona Hatoum, still from Measures of Distance, 1988. Video, color, sound, 15 min. A Western Front video production, Vancouver, 1988, © Mona Hatoum, courtesy White Cube.

FIGURE 18.

Mona Hatoum, still from Measures of Distance, 1988. Video, color, sound, 15 min. A Western Front video production, Vancouver, 1988, © Mona Hatoum, courtesy White Cube.

FIGURE 19.

Mona Hatoum, still from Measures of Distance, 1988. Video, color, sound, 15 min. A Western Front video production, Vancouver, 1988, © Mona Hatoum, courtesy White Cube.

FIGURE 19.

Mona Hatoum, still from Measures of Distance, 1988. Video, color, sound, 15 min. A Western Front video production, Vancouver, 1988, © Mona Hatoum, courtesy White Cube.

As its title more than implies, it is precisely the play of the visible and the legible that measures a field of variable distances—between the lens and its object, mother and daughter, Arabic and English, women and men, London, Vancouver, and Beirut, and so on—and which therefore both obscures and clarifies what that very play in large measure produces, as the effects either of a series of normative practices or of the artist and her subject's counter-practices. But it also measures the distance between its own intervention and the forms of legibility and visibility at work so differently in Bourdieu, Garanger, et al. In this respect, Hatoum's video brings out and indeed exercises some of the conditions of visibility and invisibility, audibility and inaudibility, legibility and illegibility, that constitute the conditions of appearance or the being-in-a-medium that Neshat and Essaydi also explore. All three women construct grand exercises in appearance and, by extension, disappearance, what Jacques Rancière has called the “distribution of the sensible,” that is, the sensory determination of the possibility of political experience: “[Aesthetics] is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and possibilities of time.”23 In this way we can measure the distance, say, from Garanger's exposure of the Kabyle woman to the nakedness of Hatoum's mother.

In Measures of Distance, writing is again sarab, fluid. It not only disturbs the video's visual surface, but drives reading back to its childhood, the infancy in which we saw words even as we learned to read them, as in an arabesque or abecedarium. In Hatoum's video this process is surely at play in the relations it constructs between the daughter's gaze, the letters in motion across the screen, the voices in depth, and the body of the mother. What is at stake here is not so much a “real” beyond the discursive as a form of thinking within the perceptible as such, and which it is the always risky task of the artist to bring to life.

I'd like now to turn to one more filmmaker, the youngest of this group, Ana Lily Amirpour (born in the UK to Iranian parents, then raised in California), whose A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), although played in a more ludic register, is a film of great visual and graphic intelligence. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is her first full-length film. Set in the fictional Bad City (actually Bakersfield, California) where everyone (although there seem to be very few actual inhabitants) speaks Farsi, the film, billed as “the first Iranian vampire movie,” seems to exist in no particular time, except perhaps the time of cinema, by which I do not mean some sort of Deleuzian time, but a time in which Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), Desperately Seeking Susan (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985), Cat People (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1942), The Outsiders (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1983), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966) can all coexist. The eternal nighttime of the film suggests that it unfolds nowhere if not in the cinema of its creator's mind. If, then, Amirpour's film has anything to do with writing, it is through a kind of generalized graphic work that includes posters, makeup, tattoos, and of course the very legibility of styles and allusions upon which it counts to mount its pastiche aesthetics.

The vampire protagonist of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night dresses as if she were in Tehran, at least when she's out on one of her nocturnal promenades (fig. 20). And she's on the prowl to kill predatory men—pimps, bullies, et cetera (fig. 21). But underneath that chador there is apparently a material girl waiting to be set free. And it is here, when she is home, that the film joins in with some of the contortions of the legible and visible of its predecessors. This is where the pen meets the eye, so to speak (fig. 22). Here a young woman constructs her own legibility, although not under conditions of her choosing, exactly—something we also witness in Women without Men, where Neshat's earlier writing upon the face (fig. 11) is replaced by a more direct writing on the face (fig. 23). And where the first image inscribes itself with Farrokhzad's verses, the second reinscribes itself in one of the poet-filmmaker's most famous images: the young female leper of The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast, 1963, dir. Forugh Farrokhzad), looking intently at her specular image, lining her eyes in kohl (fig. 24). These complex forms of self-regard, of a gaze that folds back on itself and upon the filmic spectator, form a kind of matrix out of which Farrokhzad's film develops (it opens with a zoom into a mirror etched, of course, with a floral motif [fig. 25]) and constitute only part of her enduring legacy.24 

FIGURE 20.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 20.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 21.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 21.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 22.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 22.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 23.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 23.

Shirin Neshat, still from Women without Men, 2009. © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.

FIGURE 24.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 24.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 25.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 25.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

Farrokhzad, acknowledged or not, recognized or not, is in many ways the progenitor of the images assembled here. So it is not surprising to find that writing figures prominently in her film, not only as the text of the poem she recites, but within the frame itself. The House Is Black has what amounts to two endings, both of which include writing and what might be called a process of “effacement” posed alongside and perhaps against another we might call “disfigurement.” In the first ending, the group of lepers moves toward the camera but is blocked by a pair of closing gates upon which are written the words “house of leprosy” (figs. 26, 27, 28). Here the figure of the leper is effaced and replaced by writing. In the subsequent and thus second ending, a leper writes upon a blackboard the film's title, “the house is black.” The effect is such that the writing enters the visual field and leprosy signs its own name, which is of course the title of the film (fig. 29). One image effaces the other, while writing grasps its own absence of an image. This also has the effect of displacing the male voice that opens the film, with the written sentence now taking on the status of a final verse of Farrokhzad's spoken poem. The closing of the film is therefore, in fact, its opening. A kind of technical deconstruction: not an analysis but a displacement and a deferral, a dis-figuration of text and image, legible and visible.

FIGURE 26.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 26.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 27.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 27.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 28.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 28.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 29.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

FIGURE 29.

Forough Farrokhzad, still from The House Is Black (Khaneh Siah ast), 1963. Courtesy Facets Multimedia, Inc.

Farrokhzad can thus be said to dis-enclose the enclosure that is the house of leprosy. She does this not simply by bringing her camera within its gates, since a camera aligned with a clinical discourse could easily have reinforced that enclosure, precisely according to the procedures of legibility at work in the “pre-interpretations” of colonial photography with which this essay began. Instead, she opens a material enclosure through the deployment of an innovative formal procedure: the staged and multiple interferences of the visible and the legible. Leprosy is allowed, as if for the first time, to appear. Hatoum did much the same with the space of the shower and the body of the mother, Essaydi with the space of the harem, Neshat in multiple sites. Amirpour is the direct beneficiary of this work. Her pop sensibility need not obscure that legacy.

Animated by the prior scripts of Farrokhzad et al., Amirpour's pen (fig. 22) enters into the visible in a complex, reflexive circuit in which the folding of a striped shirt on a woman's body resonates with the Op art wallpaper and the concentric circles of a Radio Tehran album cover, while the gestures of her hands mimic those of the female figures on the posters: to the left, not Patti Smith (fig. 30), but the filmmaker herself (fig. 31), and to the right, not Madonna (fig. 32), but Margaret Atwood (fig. 33), as if in order to underline, or eyeline, the relation between stylist and the stylus, and also the way in which writing produces another camouflage effect in which one image disappears into another.25 In fact, Atwood once compared her character Zenia, of the 1993 novel The Robber Bride, to Madonna. As the critic Cynthia Kuhn remarks of Atwood's analogy, both Zenia and Madonna “celebrate their ability to fashion themselves,” and can be regarded as “both vamp and vampire.”26 Writing fashions a space of allusion within the image.

FIGURE 30.

Patti Smith, 1970s. © Judy Linn, courtesy Denise Shannon Agency.

FIGURE 30.

Patti Smith, 1970s. © Judy Linn, courtesy Denise Shannon Agency.

FIGURE 31.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 31.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 32.

Madonna, 1983. © Warner Music Group.

FIGURE 32.

Madonna, 1983. © Warner Music Group.

FIGURE 33.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

FIGURE 33.

Lily Amirpour, still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014. Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

Amirpour's film, then, moves us, with something of Madonna's élan and something of Atwood's critical acumen, onto the terrain of fashion with all of its metaphorical and etymological possibilities. And given the age of its director, it proposes a far more cut-and-paste logic of appearing and disappearing. Indeed, it is tempting to lift the V from Sheila Vand (the actress who plays the Girl) and add it to Amirpour in order to produce an quasi-anagram for vampire!

Let me turn back once more to North Africa. In 2015 Amina Sboui (b. 1994, Tunisia) returned to Tunisia from France to undertake a publishing venture, Farida, a self-styled “revue féminine feministe” devoted to “make-up, fashion, cuisine … but we're also going to talk about books, we're going to talk about abortion, we're going to talk about homosexuality, refugees, secularism” (fig. 34).27 Hardly renowned as a publisher, the young Tunisian is best known for a photo posted on Facebook in March 2013 (fig. 35). She holds a book in one hand, a cigarette in the other, her eyes darkly lined and lips rouged, and written across her torso in Arabic are the words: “My body belongs to me; it is not the source of anyone's honor.” Once again we are confronted with the nexus of the visible and the legible, their meeting across a woman's body, as if to again underline or underscore the difficult and dangerous passage into representation.

FIGURE 34.

Farida draft cover, 2015. BBC.com screenshot.

FIGURE 34.

Farida draft cover, 2015. BBC.com screenshot.

FIGURE 35.

Amina Sboui, Facebook post, March 8, 2013.

FIGURE 35.

Amina Sboui, Facebook post, March 8, 2013.

Emboldened by the activism of FEMEN, a group she joined during a two-year self-imposed exile in France, and from which she subsequently separated herself prior to her return to Tunisia, Sboui discovered in their naked activism “women making use of their own bodies as open books.”28 Subject to death threats and for a time imprisoned, Sboui found support from Tunisian feminists ranging from Dorra Bouzid (b. 1933, Tunisia), whose résumé dates back to Tunisian independence in 1956, to the contemporary filmmaker Nadia El Fani (b. 1960, France), who posted her own Facebook self-portrait in support of her younger comrade. In figure 36, El Fani poses with her right forearm raised, upon which is inscribed, in French, “For Amina.” Upon her forehead, in red, and upon her right breast in black over white, the Arabic reads “liberty.” El Fani's left hand seems to cover her heart, in another kind of salute, but the pose may also refer to a breast self-examination, thus linking political solidarity and women's health in a gesture of public intimacy in which, again, a collective form turns back upon the singular body in performance: “forms of expressive gesture, in a language of the body.”

FIGURE 36.

Nadia El Fani, screenshot of Pour Amina. Tunisie Numérique, March 25, 2013, 12:17 a.m.

FIGURE 36.

Nadia El Fani, screenshot of Pour Amina. Tunisie Numérique, March 25, 2013, 12:17 a.m.

El Fani's photographic gesture, the pose she strikes, signals the multiple ways in which she makes her body her own. And the image functions for me as a kind of punctuation mark in an original and ongoing exposition—a collective biography of appearance—in which a conjuncture of formal elements confronts a conjuncture of historical-political elements, for both of which the word “representation” seems increasingly inadequate.29 El Fani seems to have taken Mernissi's prescription to the letter. “Apply writing every day. Your skin will be revitalized. … Writing promotes cellular activity. … Writing reinforces your epidermic structure,” Mernissi writes in Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory. “Writing is better than a face-lift.”30 

NOTES

NOTES
1.
Fatima Mernissi, Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory (London: Zed, 1996), 1–2.
2.
The vocabulary is drawn from Gilles Deleuze, “Having an Idea in Cinema,” trans. Eleanor Kaufman, in Deleuze and Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, ed. Eleanor Kaufman and Kevin Jon Heller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 14–19.
3.
Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria, foreword by Craig Calhoun (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), xvi.
4.
Ibid.
5.
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 2. Today, nearly two decades after Scott's important conceptual accomplishment, we would need to add that legibility now extends beyond the visible itself into the real-time reading and sifting of global data flows.
6.
Marc Garanger, Femmes Algériennes 1960 (Biarritz, France: Atlantica, 2002).
7.
Susan Slyomovics, “Visual Ethnography, Stereotypes and Photographing Algeria,” in Orientalism Revisited, ed. Ian Richard Netton (London: Routledge, 2013), 133.
8.
Giorgio Agamben, “No to Bio-Political Tattooing,” trans. Stuart J. Murray, Communications and Critical/Cultural Studies 5, no. 2 (2008), 201–2.
9.
Giorgio Agamben, Means without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 41.
10.
Dennis Adams, Recovered 10 on 10—Adams on Garanger (Brussels: Les Maîtres de Forme Contemporains, 1993). For a fuller account of the creation and exhibition of Adams's photographic series, see Slyomovics, “Visual Ethnography, Stereotypes and Photographing Algeria,” 140–44. Adams's engagement with the French colonial project in Algeria and its aftermath has been long-standing. Noteworthy here are three installations from the late 1980s: The Algerian Annex (Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989), Le Pissoir (an unrealized project for the city of Dijon, France, 1988), and The Algerian Folie (Parc de la Villette, Paris, 1989). Two later works, Double Feature (2008, a series of film stills in which images of Jean Seberg are collaged with images from Gillo Pontecorvo's 1967 film The Battle of Algiers), and Makedown (2005, a video installation in which the artist uses ninety-six stills from the same film to remove facial makeup while sitting before a vanity mirror), attest to the increasingly complex nature of that engagement.
11.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 10.
12.
Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, trans. Myrna and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). As is well known, the book is a collection of postcards created in French Algeria. Alloula's project means to be a kind of “return to sender,” a reversal of the colonial gaze, although the project is not without ambiguity. Of course, each of the postcards is captioned, and the bland, anodyne nature of these pieces of text only serves to emphasize the mutual implications of the anthropological, touristic, scientific, and erotic in the colonial project. This is “seeing like a state” as a grand, if banal, postal project (the official postal stamps are visible on many of the postcards, for example, and so writing secures the scope of the visual field). But what Alloula's collection reminds us is that what is predominantly at stake in a photograph is not what it means, but the range and direction of its uses. In this respect, Amina Sboui's March 8, 2013, Facebook photo (see fig. 37), insofar as it seemingly re-creates an image Alloula explicitly deplores (what he calls “sub-erotica”), functions as a challenge to his project—which Sboui would no doubt find patriarchal and patronizing—as well as the colonial one he critiques.
13.
Of course, the distinction between reading and seeing, between word and image, has a long history, indeed multiple histories, to which it is impossible to do justice here. Most recently, the fluid distinction between the two has been theorized under the heading of “figural thinking” by Adrian Martin. His primary contemporary reference is to the work of Nicole Brenez, most of which remains unavailable in English. See Adrian Martin, Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking from Auerbach and Kracauer to Agamben and Brenez (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2012).
14.
Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (New York: Perseus Books, 1994).
15.
Catherine Russell, “Dialectical Film Criticism: Walter Benjamin's Historiography, Cultural Critique and the Archive,” Transformations, no. 15 (2007): 2, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/issues/15/article_08.shtml.
16.
For fuller accounts of the exact provenance and background of the photographs and installations, including beautifully reproduced images, see Scott MacDonald, “Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Shirin Neshat,” Feminist Studies 30, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 621–58.
17.
Translated in ibid., 651.
18.
Much of the film, like the novel, amounts to a nuanced account of femininity and aging. Munis has just turned thirty and remains steadfastly single, implicitly linking her desire for new political forms with new sexual forms as well; Fakhri's husband deflects his own inadequacies onto his wife's supposed menopause, et cetera.
19.
Here we might compare another film, stylistically so different, but whose visual economy and vocabulary emerge from a nearly identical analogy. “A girl is like a flower,” says the father in Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple (1998), quoting from an old book of advice to fathers. “A man's gaze is like the sun and will wither it.” The film, obviously, means to refute the conclusion. But its first two images unfold sequentially what Neshat condenses: writing (the petition signed by the neighbors asking the social service agency to intervene in the sisters’ captivity) and the flower (watered by an unidentified hand).
20.
Fatima Mernissi, “Lalla Essaydi: A Spinner of Scenarios More Dangerous than Scheherazade,” in Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc (Brooklyn: Powerhouse, 2009), 10.
21.
Hatoum, who was just awarded the medal of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the subject of major retrospectives in Paris (Centre Pompidou) last year and in London (Tate) and Helsinki (Kiasma) this year.
22.
See especially T. J. Demos, The Migrant Image (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 6ff.
23.
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 13.
24.
For more on Farrokhzad and The House Is Black, see Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Nasrin Rahimieh, eds., Forugh Farrokhzad: Poet of Modern Iran (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).
25.
Reviews of the film invariably noted the presence of images of Patti Smith and Madonna in the Girl's room, neither of which, it turns out, ever quite existed, at least in the way the reviewers asserted.
26.
Cynthia G. Kuhn, Self-Fashioning in Margaret Atwood's Fiction: Dress, Culture and Identity (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 42.
27.
Daniel Silas Adamson, “Return of a Topless Rebel,” BBC.com, November 28, 2015, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34949413. Figure 36 shows a draft cover of the magazine, which has yet to officially launch. Its name is now Farida (“unique”), although in the image the name is Faiza (“victorious”). Faiza refers to Tunisia's first feminist magazine, published in 1959 by Dorra Bouzid.
28.
Amina Sboui (with Caroline Glorion), Mon corps m'appartient (Paris: Plon, 2014), 16, my translation.
29.
I intend the phrase “biography of appearance” to allude to the title of the Algerian photographer Omar D's important book Devoir de mémoire / A Biography of Disappearance: Algeria 1992– (London: Autograph ABP, 2007). Primarily and overwhelmingly a collection of identity photos of men and women “disappeared” during the décennie noire (“black decade”), the viewer can see in many of the images the official government stamp that we all recognize from our passports, the legible trace that links a photographic image to official protocols of state identity. But gathered together and appearing with photos of other “disappeared,” each image now functions as evidence against the regime that made it. And that should remind us, as I think the images in this essay all do, that what really may be at stake in the image is not what it means or represents, but how we make it function.
30.
Fatima Mernissi, Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory, 1–7.