Veil is most visible icon of contemporary Islam
New York - The veil is the most visible icon of contemporary Islam, says the producer of an exhibition featuring works by artists from North America, the Middle East and Europe. "If you see a veil, you automatically think about Islam," said Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, which hosted The Seen and the Hidden: [Dis]covering the Veil. The exhibition was part of Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas, a 10-day festival in New York City celebrating Islamic culture.
Author Marjane Satrapi depicts conflicting views of the veil in her graphic novel Persepolis. In one strip, Satrapi poses with her classmates while wearing her veil; in a later strip, the veil becomes a topic of an exchange of ideas on the playground at school.
For some artists, including Adriana Czernin, who was born in Bulgaria but lives and works in Vienna, Austria, depicting images of the veil comes easily because she believes that the veil connects women with each other and unites them. In Czernin's self-portraits, the artist conceals part of her face with shapes resembling flower petals or leaves, recalling the latticework of the traditional Arabic mashrabiya, a common type of covered window used throughout the Muslim world to hide from public view the domestic lives of women.
Yet the topic of the veil is complex, according to Stadler. This is so even in the United States and in Austria, where veiled women do not provoke much controversy. In Austria, Islam has been an officially recognized religion since 1912, said Stadler, and "in the United States, the biggest nation of immigrants in the world, there are so many different ethnicities, languages and clothing styles that we could hardly seriously discuss a rejection of this piece of clothing." (See "Acceptance of Religious Garb in U.S. Shows Diversity, Tolerance.")
Negar Ahkami is an American artist and the daughter of Iranian immigrants who grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Like most of the artists in the exhibition, Ahkami uses her cultural heritage as a source for her artworks. In Persian Dolls, Ahkami takes the traditional form of Russian matryoshka (nesting) dolls to reveal the complex lives of Iranian women.
In Turkey, the followers of the secularist ideology of the country's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, are opposed to the headscarf, according to Stadler, but in recent years the Muslim democratic movement has gained ground by advocating wearing the scarf. A growing number of young women in Turkey and around the world are consciously and actively in favor of covering their necks, heads and faces.
Artist Asma Ahmed Shikoh, who is of Pakistani heritage and lives and works in New York, collected hijabs, or headscarves, from 100 Muslim women across the United States to create Beehive in 2007. As "honeybees bear special mention in the Quran for their healing powers," writes the artist, each opening is meant to represent one of the participating women by holding her scarf and therefore part of her identity. Unlike her mother and aunt who gave up wearing the veil 30 years ago in Pakistan, Shikoh, who lives in New York, wears a headscarf. "I wear the veil as an act of faith," she said.
Sara Rahbar, who graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, recently returned to Tehran to live and work. In this photograph, which is part of the series After You, the figure wears Ghajar attire from the Persian dynasty in the 19th century and is portrayed behind semi-translucent veils, or curtains, addressing the viewer within an architectural space alluding to the harem fantasies people in the West sometimes possess about cultures in the East.
Some artists, including Ayad Alkadhi, who was born in Iraq and spent his childhood in England, the United Arab Emirates and Baghdad, use the veil as a tool to explore tensions between what can be seen and what is hidden by the scarf. In Structure, Alkadhi "veils" himself with texts only to reveal parts of his body with an X-ray. Typically, the artist mixes layers of Arabic and American newspapers with traditional calligraphic techniques and painting to create cloaked figures, using the veil as an integral part of what he calls the "skeletal elements assembled to create a whole being."
In other works, artists use images of the veil to explore identity, women's role in society and cultural heritage. In Endless Tether, a three-channel video, by Canadian artist Farheen HaQ, of South Asian-Muslim descent, two arms hold a long piece of red cloth and help to wrap it around a woman and then unwrap it. HaQ said that the "tension in the fabric oscillates between being a protective veil and a restrictive rope."
In her series of collages, Unknown Sports, Vienna, Austria-based artist Nilbar Güreş depicts women enclosed by curtains, but behind the curtains are private spaces transformed into sporting arenas: "high jumpers instead of window cleaners," the artist writes. While in public or in the presence of males, female athletes in some Muslim countries cover their heads with scarves. During practice and competition, when only females are present in the arena, female athletes wear their team uniforms without covering their heads.
Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian lives and works in Tehran. This photo is part of the series Like Everyday (Domestic Life), which uses humor to explore the conflicts contemporary Muslim women face between tradition and modernity and the challenges all women face in societies dominated by male stereotypes. By juxtaposing veiled silhouettes in traditionally patterned fabrics with everyday kitchen utensils - here she substitutes a spoon for a face - the artist playfully explores the idea of "woman as object."
Male stereotypes of women as objects are explored in the witty works of Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian, whose series Like Everyday (Domestic Life) presents veiled women with kitchen utensils substituted for the faces. Juxtaposing traditionally patterned fabrics for a veil and a rubber kitchen glove as a face, for example, is meant to depict conflicts between tradition and modernity, said Stadler.
The Seen and the Hidden was organized by curators Mark Harper and Martha Kirszenbaum in New York and Karin Meisel in Vienna, who selected contemporary works from young artists, or emerging artists. "It's not just an issue in Europe and America," Harper said at a panel discussion in New York. The issue of the veil, he said, is a global issue.
See also the photo gallery Images of the Veil in Muslim Life.
Additional information on the exhibition can be found on the Muslim Voices Festival Web site.
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