life, frame by poetic frame - Documentary eye inspires Matar’s shows.
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff | December 26, 2009
The past few months Rania Matar’s photographs have been all over
Greater Boston. “Rania Matar: Ordinary Lives’’ at Mount Ida College,
in Newton, closed two weeks ago. A show of the same name, with different
images, runs at Gallery Kayafas, in the South End, through Jan.
Matar, 45, is also one
of the principals in “Three Concerned Women,’’ which runs at the
Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, through Jan. 10. And
she had two photographs in the Danforth Museum’s recent New England
If all that’s not enough,
Matar’s first book, “Ordinary Lives,’’ came out last month, and
she was a finalist last year for the Institute of Contemporary Arts’s
“Overwhelming and fun’’
is how Matar, speaking over lunch at an Indian restaurant in Coolidge
Corner, describes her recent ubiquity. “I felt embarrassed e-mailing
people so much [about the shows]. But I got over it. And I had one
in Lebanon and London, as well.’’
A vivacious, animated
woman, Rania Matar (RAHN-yuh muh-TAR) lives in Brookline with her
family. Her husband owns a construction company in the South End.
They have four children, ranging in age from 9 to 15.
In 1984, Matar came to
the United States from Lebanon, where she was born and raised, to
attend Cornell. She recalls flying into New York with her father
and renting a car. “We drove five hours,’’ Matar says. “I’d never
been in a car that long. In five hours you can drive around Lebanon
Having lived in the United
States for a quarter-century now, Matar speaks with a faint, if
musical, accent. She has “a foot in each culture,’’ she says. With
her family, she goes back to Lebanon each summer - and by herself
several times a year to photograph.
Lebanon provides the
material for “Ordinary Lives.’’ Subjects range from life in refugee
camps to scenes of Lebanese Christian culture. A thread running
throughout is the situation of women and children. Matar says, “A
lot of things that happen in Lebanon - the war, the camps, the [wearing
of the] veil - I feel the women bear the brunt of decisions that
are not made by them and they’re the ones who make sure their families
A sense of duality informs
Matar’s work. Much of that duality is what one might expect: East
and West, rich and poor, war and peace. But what’s most striking
about Matar’s photography is another duality: its balance between
the realistic and poetic. She is the documentarian as lyricist,
someone who, recording the incongruous, discovers the transcendent.
Three women, covered
from head to toe in black abayas, gaze at a glittering sea. A girl
wearing a headscarf gazes upward as she juggles, looking at the
balls she’s tossed - or heaven? Surrounded by war-damaged buildings,
a toddler wears a Barbie shirt.
Arlette Kayafas, whose
gallery represents Matar, vividly recalls her initial encounter
with Matar’s photographs. “When I first saw the work, it actually
made me cry,’’ Kayafas says. “When I saw that Barbie girl image
all I could think was, regardless of the chaos and circumstances,
life goes on.’’
Matar came to Boston
after Cornell to work for Schwartz/Silver Architects. After seven
years with the firm, she went freelance, often working on projects
with her husband. Her office was at home, so she could be around
her young children. She began to grow restive, though. The work
“became a lot of kitchens and bathrooms,’’ Matar says, looking rueful.
This was about a decade ago.
“I decided to take photo
classes because I needed a break for a little bit,’’ Matar says.
“I thought, I’ll stop work for a while, focus on my kids, then go
back to architecture. Something clicked - literally. When I started
photographing, I just got completely passionate about it.’’
Having found a new vocation,
Matar soon found a subject.
“I had a cousin
who went to a refugee camp [in Lebanon] to make a documentary and
I tagged along. I just started photographing there. I was shocked.
You know, Lebanon is tiny. So in 10 minutes I could get to a refugee
camp [from where she was staying]. Even though I grew up during
[the 1980s Lebanese civil war], I was pretty sheltered. I did not
know people lived like that so close to where I grew up. At the
same time, the part of me that’s American felt outraged by the human
rights issues. When you’re there, it’s about survival and moving
“So I just started photographing
that. I was hooked. I never went back to architecture.’’
Matar has begun broadening
her focus in the Middle East, with recent visits to Syria, the West
Bank, and Jerusalem. She has another ongoing project closer to home.
Two years ago, she started photographing local teenage girls in
their bedrooms. “It’s their shell against the outside world, in
a way,’’ Matar explains. She’s shot 130 so far, all in color (most
of Matar’s Middle East photos are in black and white). Her two photos
in the Danforth biennial were from the series.
“It is and it isn’t different
from my other work,’’ Matar says. “In the other work, there is family
life going on while I’m photographing. But people are aware I’m
there with the camera, so I do alter the situation on some level.
With each girl, it’s just me and her. A lot of them are loving it.
They’re so self-centered at that age. They’re [understanding the
project] much more than their mothers do.’’
Matar laughs when she
tells how one mother kept calling her daughter during the shoot
to make fashion suggestions. She laughs some more when she says,
“All these girls have friended me on Facebook - and my daughter’s
horrified! ‘I’m not friending them,’ I tell her, ‘they’re friending
Mark Feeney can be reached
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