Breaking through the veils and biases

The last scene of «Rapture,» the video by emigre Iranian artist Shirin Neshat that won the 1999 Venice Biennale prize, is an allegorical story that juxtaposes men’s and women’s culture in Iran culminates in a group of women clad in the traditional black chadors climbing into a boat and heading out to sea. An army of men dressed in white shirts and sheltered in a fortress look on in the midst of the desert. The most likely interpretation of this scene is that they represent the status quo of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, from which women so desperately seek escape. In a Western, contemporary world so much inundated by the spirit of multiculturalism and gender politics, Neshat’s work was welcomed as a poignant meditation on women’s suppression in Islam. «Rapture» is far from the only one; the story it tells keeps recurring in other works that have become well known in the West, including «The Circle,» a recent film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. That such politically charged works by non-Western artists become popular in the West is a sign of openness and receptivity to other cultures. But, seen from another angle, it is also proof that for something non-Western to have an impact in the West, it has to cater to long-held stereotypes; in this case, the sweeping generalization that women in Islam are, without exception, repressed. But is this the only truth? Does Neshat’s message (although ambivalent) stand for the most representative picture of Islam, and is this politically based art the most representative kind of Islamic art? Not according to «Breaking the Veils, Women Artists from the Islamic World,» an exhibition that opened in Rhodes (at the Porte d’Amboise in the medieval city) recently and will tour the world after a stop in Athens in January. The exhibition is organized by the Royal Society of Fine Arts in Jordan and the Pan-Mediterranean Women Artists Network FAM (Femme – Art – Mediterranee, which is based in Greece and was established by Aliki Moschis-Gauget) and features works by women artists from a host of Islamic countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. «Breaking the Veils» is a metaphor for breaking the stereotypes – both Western notions of Islam and the reverse – and the exhibition’s diversity is intended as a reminder (timed in the spirit of the post-September 11 attack) of the intricacies and contradictions that make up contemporary Islamic reality and, in consequence, its art. «The most common misconception is that figurative art is forbidden in Islam, also that women in Islam are not allowed to work, that they do not have rights, that they are supposed to be submissive and stay at home and just live to serve their male relatives,» is what Princess Wijdan Ali, curator of the exhibition and head of the Royal Society of Fine Arts in Jordan, told Kathimerini English Edition. The prevalence of figurative art in the exhibition proves the curator’s point, but the recurring images of women in distress suggests that oppression is a continuing reality in some countries of the Islamic world. The varying degrees and the nuances is what makes the difference. «This is a message to the West not to stand by stereotypes about women in Islam because the Islamic world is so vast, so varied from Indonesia to South East Asia to Morocco. Each region is totally different so you cannot generalize at all,» the princess said. True, the exhibition alerts us to the fact that generalizations are bound to lead to misconceptions to which we are doubly vulnerable when it comes to judging distant cultures. But in many ways the exhibition seems trapped in its own generalizations, for other than a general impression of what some contemporary art in Islam looks like, it fails to account for the intricacies behind it. Consequently, its effect is more symbolic than enlightening, partly because the exhibition’s broad range only helps to draw some general, sweeping conclusions rather than yield an in-depth analysis. Social and political conditions in the countries from which the participating artists come from are often too far apart to provide a unified, meaningful context for grouping their art together. Unless the selection made is representative of the art of each country (which, considering the diversity of contemporary art, is almost impossible to achieve), to juxtapose a painting by a Palestinian artist with that of an Indonesian artist is most likely to say very little of either. In view of this, the exhibition is more about imparting a general impression than providing an insightful understanding of contemporary art in Islamic countries. The exhibition should probably be seen as a symbolic gesture for approaching the Western audience and is part of a vague, contemporary rhetoric concerning how culture helps bridge differences. It is an effort to find a common language, so to speak, hence the exclusive focus on the work of women artists, a curatorial choice which feeds on a Western feminist and «gender politics» perspective. But there is also a more specific side to the exhibition: The fact that all the works come from the permanent collection of the National Academy of the Fine Arts in Jordan (the museum which was established by the Royal Society of Fine Arts in 1980) makes this exhibition perhaps more telling of Jordan’s cultural politics and artistic climate than anything else. Indeed, at the exhibition’s opening there were several Jordanian artists to attest to what they feel is an existing, artistic freedom in Jordan. Nawal Abdallah and Dodi Tabbaa, both artists participating in the exhibition, spoke of increasing opportunities for artists, the commissioning of art by big hotels and corporations, the operation of art foundations and galleries at the cutting edge of contemporary art, the teaching of art in a growing number of universities across the country, and ongoing cultural exchanges between European countries and Jordan. «Many women who wear the veil are well educated but it is simply their choice to wear it,» said Dodi Tabbaa. Knowing this, to «uncover the veils» becomes as much an exercise in self-criticism and of one own’s culture as of other people and their distant cultures. Whether art and cultural exchanges are effective in uprooting prejudices is open to debate. It is one more question added to the interesting queries that the current exhibition poses to the more sceptical viewer. On view at the Porte d’Amboise until October 30.

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