Art in the press

Just life, frame by poetic frame - Documentary eye inspires Matar’s shows

By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff | December 26, 2009

BROOKLINE - 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. 16.

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 Photography Biennial.

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 Foster Prize.

“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 three times!’’

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 survive.’’

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 on.

“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 me.’ ’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at [email protected].

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company