Let the Girls Be Girls, While They Still Can: Rania Matar at Transformer Station
In junior high, I began covering the walls of my childhood bedroom with clippings from fashion and music magazines. The growing collages began to the cover the adjoining walls and door frames, containing images as disparate as Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran to Claudia Schiffer channeling Brigette Bardot in a Guess jeans ad. Sprinkle in some horses, Dali Paintings, and River Phoenix and what emerges is the often chaotic but completely normal recipe of my becoming an adolescent.
As I was walking around the Transformer Station, taking in the large color photographs of Rania Matar, I was struck by how many of the young girls reminded me of myself – it was uncanny. Not just the insane teenage collaging, but the poses, the postures, the awkwardness, the pride, and the uncertainty they exude is all too familiar. Rania Matar’s photos reveal the surprisingly universal experience of what it means to be female – or rather, what it means to become one.
For the series A Girl and Her Room, she photographed young women alone “in the personal space she was curating for herself, where she was exploring her own sense of identity.” Matar got parental permission before she took the portraits – but once she had it, she asked each mother to leave the room. The girls then chose their clothes and their poses.
While each teen is clearly a unique individual, the artist observed that “there’s something very universal about being a teenage girl, whether it’s in Lebanon, in a Palestinian refugee camp, or in Boston. They are all going through that same transition and turning into adults. They might be dealing with it in different ways, but they’re all dealing with it.”
The overwhelming sameness of the girls in these images is remarkable. The more you look, the more the geographical, chronological, racial, and economic variations recede. The girls mirror each other in ways wholly unexpected but also comfortably familiar.
For me, Matar’s photos immediately called to mind the work of a little-known female pioneer of British photography, Lady Clementina Hawarden. Her pictures are tiny windows into Victorian culture, adolescence, mother-daughter relationships, and intimacy – very much like Rania Matar’s work. Hawarden’s photographs, around eight hundred in number, are primarily pictures of her daughters, taken in a few rooms of their London townhouse.
Many writers have pointed out that the daughters often appear quite sensual in these photographs – suggesting that their provocative poses are significant. But I’m not so sure. There is a universality to be seen here as well.
Today, the public is just as uneasy with presentations of sexuality and adolescence as the Victorians were – and in fact, Matar has met with such criticism of her work. “There are people who sometimes tell me this is very sexual,” says Matar, sounding irked. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s not.’ It’s a girl coming to terms with her femininity.” And I completely agree. Please just let these girls be girls, unashamed, while they still can.
The poses of some of the girls in Matar’s photos certainly demonstrate a knowledge of sexual imagery, albeit probably gleaned from television, magazines, youtube, or Instagram. The image above, Clara, for example, happened completely organically. Matar was there to photograph Clara’s older sisters, but when Clara begged to have her photo taken too, this is the pose she chose. As you can see, she stole the show – and became the muse for Matar’s ensuing series, L’Enfant-Femme (a French expression for that fleeting preteen moment when a girl starts to become a woman).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with young women exploring their emerging sexuality – in fact, I think there is a deep beauty to the often awkward attempt – and Matar’s gift is capturing it so poignantly.
In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar is on view at the Transformer Station through January 13, 2019. To learn more, please visit www.transformerstation.org.