Rania Matar: On Either Side of the Window: Portraits During Covid-19
February 2 through May 9, 2021
By MARIALUISA MIRAGLIA, March 2021
Talking about Rania Matar’s artistic work without starting with her children would be impossible. It is thanks to her two daughters and two sons that Matar got into photography. Her kids have been inspiring her art from her first series, Family Moments, till her latest, On Either Side of the Window, currently on show at Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Florida.
Born and raised in Lebanon during the Civil War, Matar moved to the United States in 1984. She studied at Cornell University, got married in Boston and pursued a career in architecture. In 2000, while pregnant with her fourth child, she took a photography workshop. It was love at first sight: with the medium, the craft and the possibility to make intimate portraits. “I showed my early shots to somebody once, and he told me: ‘You need to have that same level of intimacy with everybody you photograph’. It was the best advice I’ve ever received.”
A little at a time, wide-angle lenses and analogue films replaced drafting boards and compasses. Matar devoted herself to photography, and to the fascinating and complex female world. After September 11, she became a photographer full time. “Before that date, I thought of myself as a 100 % American citizen,” she revealed. “Then, all of a sudden, my sense of identity came back. The whole rhetoric was very disturbing at that point. The media used the words ‘them’ versus ‘us’. But I am ‘them’ and I am ‘us’. And it became very important to me to come to terms with that, with my dual identity, in my work.”
Matar began photographing women from the United States alongside women from the Middle East (A Girl and Her Room; Unspoken Conversations; She). Exploring how women face different transitional moments in life, the artist realized that hijabs and T-shirts were just two sides of the same coin. “Every young girl is her own individual, right? But they’re all going through those biological, physiological, emotional transitions that happen in a woman’s body at the same time. So, even if their lives are different, they’re dealing with that sense of their being girls and their becoming women. And this is universal.”
There is something else, lately, that has strengthened this idea of universality and shared humanity. Naming it makes us scared, but Matar believes it has a silver lining: Covid-19.
ON EITHER SIDE OF THE WINDOW
Last spring, Rania Matar was stuck at home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was in the kitchen, working on her forthcoming book She, when an idea accidentally hit her. “I found myself looking across my yard, into my neighbour’s window. She was in her kitchen, also at her window. I thought it was beautiful.” On April 5, the artist posted a message on Instagram: “If you live within a 30-minute drive from Brookline and have access to a window at your house, I would love to come and say hello and take a picture”. Around 100 people replied.
Over a few months, Matar’s project took shape. The series, which came to be known as On Either Side of the Window, was the first Matar shot in digital. “I bought a new digital camera because nobody was developing film at the beginning of the pandemic. And then I felt I couldn’t wait two months to get my film back and do all this. It was something that was happening, and I needed to document it on the spot.”
Standing in gardens with her handheld camera, the artist photographed women, men, couples, non-binary people and kids through their windows. In the windowpanes, Matar caught the beauty of everyday lives and the rhythm of changing seasons.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic allowed Matar to meet an entire community and to reconnect with people she loved. Tears of joy appear in the artist’s eyes when she starts talking about a woman called Susan. “She’s married to Raffy, the son of our old babysitter. When my kids were little, Raffy used to come with his mother and play with my kids. Then my children grew up, and we lost each other.” In April, Raffy texted Matar. He wanted her to photograph his wife. The result? An evocative portrait of an eight months pregnant woman in white. And a renewed friendship.
Looking at Matar’s portraits, one can forget social distancing. The distance between Matar and her sitters was just physical. Even though there was a barrier between them, they were able to build a very personal connection. “Sometimes, I found little things for me hanging at the doors, like flowers or chocolate. Sometimes, there was another window open, so they could hear me; sometimes we had the phones on inside and outside. I realized we were all living the same thing at the same moment. And all of a sudden, the whole world was in the same boat, life stopped everywhere. There was something powerful about this”.
As time went by, people started to dress up like they would have done on a common, pre-pandemic, Saturday night. One day, two dancers performed tango in front of Matar’s eyes, transforming their window into a stage. Domestic life turned out to be better than a play. But Matar was not surprised. Her early work portraying her kids trained her to find poetry in mundane moments. “When nothing is happening, and you see somebody’s just sitting there reading a book, with a beautiful light on it, it could be a picture, right? So, sometimes it’s simpler than people think it has to be…”
The Cornell Museum exhibition features a selection of 27 pictures, with which Matar transformed a time full of uncertainty and isolation into a unifying moment. Viewers will be surprised to learn that Matar’s work is still ongoing. The artist visited Susan when she had the baby and took a picture of the toddler’s first Christmas. Now, she would like to portray some of her sitters again, twelve months later. She posted a message on Instagram: “If I photographed you at your window last year and you’re up for it, I would love to reconnect a year later, hear what you’ve been up to and make your portrait”.
Yet, there is no rush. Covid-19 has taught Matar to slow down. These days, the artist is enjoying time with her kids, four young adults who don’t want to be photographed any more but keep inspiring her work. She is working on her book, She. And she is reading My Brilliant Friend, an Italian novel about a decades-long friendship between two girls. A story of ordinary lives, not too dissimilar from those that Matar tells with her camera. WM
Marialuisa Miraglia is an Italian freelance journalist and writer based in London. She covers Arts and Culture for both English and Italian outlets. She loves working on underreported stories, reading and falling in love with fictional characters. You can find some of her work in HasteMag, iFilmsOnline and Eppen, or say hello at @AboutMarialuisa.view all articles from this author