TRT World interviewed photographer Rania Matar, who stayed connected through windows during the pandemic and whose work is now being exhibited at the Middle East Institute (MEI) Art Gallery’s Art In Isolation exhibition.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) Arts and Culture Centre has compiled an exhibition through an open call for the first time this year. The artwork by Middle Eastern artists went on display on October 8, 2020 and can be seen through January 29, 2021, both online and by appointment at the MEI Art Gallery.

Titled Art in Isolation: Creativity in the Time of Covid-19, the exhibition features “works by 39 emerging, mid-career, and established artists investigating the emotional and physical impact of confinement on artistic practice.”

TRT World was able to interview via email the Lebanese/Palestinian and American photographer Rania Matar about her two photographs in the exhibition, along with the larger series they are a part of. Matar, 56, was born in Beirut, Lebanon and now lives in Boston.

Mia and Jun, Allston, Massachusetts, 2020.
Mia and Jun, Allston, Massachusetts, 2020. (Courtesy of Rania Matar)

TRT WORLD: In the Art in Isolation exhibition, you have two photographs with people looking out their windows. Could you elaborate on these pieces? Who are they, and what prompted you to shoot them?

RANIA MATAR: When we went on lockdown, in an effort to stay connected, I came up with the idea of photographing people at their windows. It was important for me to keep working and to find a way to document how I experienced the moment we were all living in. I put a post on Instagram asking people to message me if they were interested in being part of this. I got flooded with replies, which was pretty incredible. It spoke to the need we all had, as human beings to stay connected as we collectively were living this historic moment.  

Mia and Jun were one of the first to respond. I knew Mia from as we had worked together. She is a curator and she had exhibited my work, but she and her husband Jun are also tango dancers and they brought an element of performance to the shoot. 

Minty, Kayla, Leyah, and Layla are a family that a woman I had previously photographed at her window and with whom I eventually became friends with, connected me with. This image also expresses very much what we were going through during the pandemic as kids were all home being homeschooled or back from college, and families were all united. The idea of home as a safe place also became obvious for me in those photographs and this image resonated with me - as a mother whose kids were also all home at that moment.

Minty, Kayla, Leyah, and Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020.
Minty, Kayla, Leyah, and Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020. (Courtesy of Rania Matar)

Are these photos part of a series, and what are you trying to achieve with the series? 

RM: Those photos are part of what became a larger project indeed. I photographed anyone who responded and who was willing to be part of this. It made me - and the people in the photographs - stay connected to the larger community. We were able to build a relationship and create a connection despite the physical barrier. We were in isolation and this human interaction felt very important. On another level, it was my way of telling the story of what we were all experiencing at the moment. 

I photograph people in almost all of my work and I always strive to make intimate and personal portraits. The challenge and the goal for me was to create intimate portraits that tell a story, despite the physical barrier between us. 

What informs your work? What inspires you to pick up the camera and start a project?

RM: I am always straddling my two cultures and identities, as a Lebanese/Palestinian and as an American woman and mother. My cultural background, cross-cultural experience, and personal narrative inform my photography. I have dedicated my work to exploring issues of personal and collective identity, through photographs of female adolescence and womanhood - both in the United States where I live and the Middle East where I am from, in an effort to focus on notions of identity and individuality all within the context of the underlying universality of these experiences. 

My work focuses on girlhood and womanhood, on growing up and growing old, on life transitions - all inspired by my own daughters as they go through all stages of life.

Austin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2020.
Austin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2020. (Courtesy of Rania Matar)

How has Covid-19 affected the way you work?

RM: Covid-19 made me create a new body of work.  While it previously felt as if the news is divisive with rhetorics like "them vs. us", Covid-19 strangely unified us and we were a "we": all in this together, in the same boat, with life at a standstill and reduced to the confinement of home. This virus is such an equalizer, making us all re-evaluate our shared humanity, our fragility, and our priorities.

Isolation and confinement offered me the gift of time at home with my family, and in the studio with my work. I had almost forgotten how precious both are. With time and space to re-evaluate what matters, and with a need for human interaction, I reached out to people on Instagram and started visiting them – while keeping the physical distancing – and making their portraits through the window. A new project about "connecting across barriers" emerged. 

Again as it is based on a personal experience, it turned into a project. 

Anna and Sophie, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 2020.
Anna and Sophie, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 2020. (Courtesy of Rania Matar)

The coronavirus has negatively affected a lot of people and upended a lot of lives. How have you been doing?

RM: It has been a difficult year for so many and on so many levels, including the horrible explosions in Beirut. I keep trying to focus on the humanity and the kindness of people and to find silver linings in how the constant bad news has also brought a lot of kindness and humanity. I created a fundraiser for Beirut and was overwhelmed by people's support and generosity. Also during the lockdown, people also generously gave me their time and shared themselves with me across the windows.

I have been focusing on the positivity that came out of horrible events, but also on the interconnectivity between us that we took for granted. I have also been doing my best to slow down while staying busy. I used to travel a lot before the virus to teach workshops, to visit my family in Lebanon, to make pictures, to give lectures, etc.  Now most of this is done from home and online. While I miss my family in Beirut, slowing down a bit was in some ways a gift. It made me spend time with my kids, time editing my work and start working on my upcoming book

But it also forced me to be creative and start a new project. 

Rania Matar is a Lebanese/Palestinian and American photographer who started a photography project inspired by the isolation brought on by the coronavirus.
Rania Matar is a Lebanese/Palestinian and American photographer who started a photography project inspired by the isolation brought on by the coronavirus. (Helena Goessens / Courtesy of Rania Matar)

How has the coronavirus affected the art world? What do you think the art world will be like post-virus?

RM: I think it also forced everyone to slow down a bit and to find alternative ways of viewing art. Exhibitions went online, or else they still happened in the physical space but few people can visit them. People started creating video installations. I miss seeing art in person and for the few weeks that life opened a bit I was able to visit museums. It was a gift. 

I heard from a few galleries that they also make more sales online and while some are struggling, some are welcoming a bit of the quieter way of working. In the past few years, galleries had to invest a lot of time and money in being part of art fairs. That was expensive and also exhausting. Now they are creating "viewing rooms" online. I think eventually we will all settle for something in between. 

Thumbnail photo: Nadav, Brookline, Massachusetts, 2020. Headline photo: Ruth, Boston, Massachusetts, 2020. Both courtesy of Rania Matar.

Source: TRT World