By Savanna Morrison
The evolution of modern art in historically Islam-dominated countries paralleled artistic development in the West; it began in the 19th century as approach and style began to diverge from the normalized aesthetic of what is now deemed classical art (Porter 15). New technologically advanced methods of artmaking, such as lithography and photography, began to dominate; Western schools of artistic thought such as Cubism and Surrealism were reinterpreted by these artists through the infusion of these European movements with the rich cultural traditions of their countries. In the spirit of these new movements (and of traditional Islamic art forms as well), artists sought to use their art as a vehicle for social and political commentary. As a result, a great deal of art from traditionally Muslim countries turned into blatant responses, ranging from nationalistic to critical, to the political situation in each artist’s native country (15).
As artists began to grapple with new and often tumultuous political ideologies, they also began to face the generalization of their identities within the formation of a nationalistic community. The general population, artists included, responded fervently to new ideologies and radical political thoughts that seemed to be emerging in the face of political instability. In some areas, like the Palestine, unrest and violence were the norm, and so these reactions carried on through much of the 20th century; in other areas, like Iran, democracy delayed the manifestation of instability until the late 20th century, which saw the reinstatement of fundamentalist rule under Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran . At any rate, all of these countries eventually and quickly devolved into political war zones recognized by their use for intra-regional and international political chaos and violence.
Seemingly at the forefront of these battles, Islam and its associated cultural and religious traditions became pawns in the games played by politicians. In many cases, Islam was used by new governments as propaganda in an attempt to create nationalistic excitement through recalling the rich traditions and heritages of the native country; in other cases, cultural aspects of the religion were adopted by the state and imposed as law within these often fundamentalist regimes.
It is important to note that, while these complex political systems seemed to be unraveling solely within the context of the East, they were actually doing so on a world stage; countries in this region of the world were not only struggling to find order in the face of chaos, but they were also simultaneously fighting the creation of an external image– one that was stereotypical and grossly generalized– of the people living in these countries. For foreigners, each country in the region became synonymous with each other; Iran became the same as Afghanistan, Syria became the same as Iraq, etc. on the ground that, at the end of the day, all of these countries were most importantly “Middle Eastern” and “Muslim.” The violent imposition and involvement of external, namely American, forces within these countries and the resulting wars over resources and democracy led to vicious propagandist campaigns throughout the world portraying what was deemed the “Middle East” as culturally “backwards;” Islam, a widely diverse and complex religion practiced with varying levels of dedication, became associated with radical fundamentalism. The addition of subsequent terrorist actions from radical political groups, often claiming fundamentalist Islam as their motivation for violence, scarred the psyche of the American people in a way that allowed American and Western European politicians to scare people into rejecting Islam and demonizing this region of the world.
Through the convoluted web of violence and fear that was created and the skewing of Islam’s cultural and religious traditions for the sake of fear-mongering and pro-war propaganda, an image of the people living in the Middle East began to emerge. The resulting identities foreignly imposed on the people living in this region were those of the religious extremist and the terrorist. Symbols of the religion, including the Q’uran and the veil, to name a few, were condemned as anti-modern and anti-human. The Middle East became a singular place and a singular person wrought with suffering, anger, and violence. People in these countries who disagreed with the caustic political regimes in the region were rejected by their home countries. Those that practiced Islam outside of the region, or simply “appeared” Middle Eastern (i.e. dark hair, dark skin tone, thick accent, etc.) were condemned by the outside world as people to be feared and rejected. To be Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, or just generally Muslim in any context meant being labeled with an identity that was unrepresentative. Labels of identity created a definition of the self that was false and fantasized yet interchangeably representational of reality as a result of their expression of political dynamics and their colloquial use in modern sociopolitical thought (Graham-Dixon 9).
This larger deconstruction and reformation of identity based on regional associations, nationalism, and external stereotypes can be seen on a much more specific basis as paralleling the evolution of feminism in the region. It can be said that many of the same struggles facing the generalization of political identity can be found in the overgeneralization of gender issues. This is particularly true when discussing the identities of artists, who tend to be quickly defined by their gender and their nationality so that the audience can “shed light” on the intricacies of their works. There are three main assumptions about artists, specifically female artists that hail from the Middle East, that often blur the true meanings of their work: first, that “the meaning” of the work of an artist is automatically “determined primarily by her gender and her regional identity; second, that because they share a gender and hail from the same region, women artists of Middle Eastern descent speak with a uniform voice; and, third, that their unanimity of perspective translates into formal and thematic affinities” at the expense of the art itself (Brodsky, et. al. 36). In this, the transfixion of political and religious beliefs leads to the gross stereotypes of, simply put, being “Muslim” or “Jewish” or “Iranian” or “female.” These labels are largely a result of the “deterritorialization of identity” in the face of globalization and the “reification of identity under the conditions of war and patriarchy” (36). In other words, these female artists from Islam-dominated countries are faced with problems both of transcending identity so as to not blur artistic intention and of defining identity so as to provide fierce commentaries about the formation, utilization, and accuracy of certain labels within a broader sociopolitical context. The use of stereotyped, generalized, and often misused identity labels “wedges artists from the region in the rocky power dynamic of playing into expected perception and representation, and countering the latter” (Sloman 13).
In response to this complex context of artmaking imposed on these artists, this exhibition will attempt to show the ways in which female photographers and videographers deal with the modern and contemporary politicization of identities– Muslim identity, national identities, and gender identities (in this case, female). While each artist has wildly different motivations for creating their works, they all at their core demonstrate the simultaneous lack of meaning in contemporary identity labels and the complex, imbued politicized sense of self that either subverts these labels or confronts them; in the case of these artists, this is largely done through the use of the politicized symbol of the veil. Through the veil, these artists grapple with the idea of “Muslimness” and femininity, seeking to make sense of the dense political discourse surrounding the definitions of the female and Muslim identities in modern American and Middle Eastern societies.
The primary artist featured in this exhibition is Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), arguably the most internationally recognized female artist dealing with issues regarding contemporary Muslim identity in her art. Born in Tehran, Neshat was exiled from Iran at a relatively young age and currently lives and works in New York, New York. The experience of being “an artist in exile,” as she puts it, has been an especially important influence in Neshat’s work:
Oddly enough, an artist such as myself finds herself also in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people, even if I have, indeed, no access to my own country… we’re fighting two battles on different grounds. We’re being critical of the West, the perception of the West about our identity — about the image that is constructed about us, about our women, about our politics, about our religion. We are there to take pride and insist on respect. And at the same time, we’re fighting another battle. That is our regime, our government — our atrocious government, [that] has done every crime in order to stay in power. (Neshat)
Neshat feels a profound responsibility to uphold and fight for the cultural values from which she comes from yet does not exist in– a voice she very much identifies as coming from the outside (Chiu 11). In this way, she attempts to criticize the political situation of Iran and impositions of fundamentalist and militant identities onto the Iranian people as well as force her audience to reexamine the ways in which the Western world incorrectly labels people based on their religious, cultural, and/or gender identities.
In no work are Neshat’s observations more apparent than in the series Women of Allah (1993-1997). This collection of photographs depicts women wearing black chadors with Farsi script written across their bare skin and guns in their hands (Figure 1). The facial expression of the figure, most specifically in the eyes, is calm yet paradoxically aggressive and gives the figure an air of confrontation. The veil covering most of her body serves as a significant political marker of gender and Islam. While the veil is inherently feminine, Neshat politicizes the way in which it is used as a symbol through denying its Western stereotypes (i.e. that Muslim women are either politically oppressed by the patriarchy or overwhelmingly sexual figures) and, when paired with the figure’s firm gaze, forcing her audience to treat the chador as a representation of strength and militancy and not as a definition of the imposed situation implied by the stereotypification of veiling culture. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, this strength and militancy are further emphasized by the gun the figure is holding.
The gender of the figure and the reference to veiling are obvious cues of a discussion about gender identity and the political landscape that has come to define the female Muslim body in Islam and in the West. At the same time, however, the gun itself also carries its own aggressive meaning; it seems to reference the politicization of Islam through its militarization. The image of a Muslim woman holding a gun alludes to the 1979 Revolution, when many women who were armed by the Fundamentalist party and fought alongside their male counterparts in the revolution. As a result, Neshat is able to reference the underlying feminism represented by the figure and the contradictory problematization of encouraging militant violence. Through the use of symbolic elements with significant multiple meanings, Neshat is able to engage her audience and encourage the beginnings of a discussion about religious and political identity, militarization, and gender identity as it exists in both Iran and the West.
Soon after Neshat’s groundbreaking Women of Allah series was premiered, Jananne al-Ani (b. 1966) offered her own perspective on the political feminine and Muslim identities. Born in Iraq, al-Ani attended school and continues to live and work in London, England. Like Neshat, al-Ani is an outsider to the culture that is her birthright. However, she takes a very different stance on how to approach Iraqi politics. She was inspired by “the ways in which the bodies of civilians and victims had disappeared into the landscape” during times of war (Lighthouse296). Rather than focusing on the explicit politics of the regime, as Neshat did, al-Ani chose to focus on the ways civilians (or Muslims or Muslim women, depending on the context) were affected by their greater cultural surroundings in an attempt to encourage them to prevent this act of “disappearance,” in terms of identity and politics, for themselves.
Much of al-Ani’s early works focus on “Orientalist representations of the Middle East in Western visual culture and, in particular, enduring myths and fantasies surrounding the veil” (Brodsky, et. al. 68). Her piece Veil demonstrates the epitome of this point in her career. Using a single screen slide projection to loop her images, this work depicts five women dressed in black and set casually against a black background. As the projection continues, the bodies of the women are slowly veiled and then unveiled. Since the background and the veils are all black, they blend into each other; this leaves only the exposed skin of the women– most noticeably their eyes and faces– clearly visible to the viewer. In this way, the figures appear and disappear throughout the work, yet their presence is always felt through the strong conviction held in their facial expressions.
The act of veiling here contains the same stereotypical connotations as it does in Neshat’s work. The veiling and unveiling of the figures seems to impose upon and then remove from these figures the stereotypical beliefs about Muslim women carried in the symbol of the veil. This is done in order to have the audience recognize that these stereotypes are more deeply connected to an object– the veil itself– than the person wearing it, forcing the viewer to confront their ideas about symbolic markers and the politicized performance of identity in contrast with reality. In addition, the constant presence of strength in the facial expressions of these women speaks to an Eastern audience; in effect, this presence serves as a representation of and model for the kind of conviction seen by al-Ani as necessary for Muslims if they want to live their lives in accordance with their own sense of social or political identity rather than with the identities imposed on them through the perceptions of foreigners and a corrupt government.
Neshat and al-Ani’s works, at large, seem to have both directly and indirectly inspired a broad lineage of photographers and videographers. One of these artists, Shadi Ghadirian (b. 1974), was born in Tehran and continues to live and create art in Iran (“Shadi Ghadirian). Like Neshat and al-Ani, Ghadirian was quite fascinated by the subjects of war and political upheaval in Iranian culture. She took a very different stylistic turn, however, in her works when she began discussing political issues in terms of gender identity instead of violence.
Described as a reflection on the realities of married life for an Iranian woman, her photographic series Like Everyday provides a lighthearted yet simultaneously serious reflection on Muslim and Western female identities (Chobimelafestival). In this series, Ghadirian sculpts decorative fabric, a seeming reference to floral tablecloths, to suggest the form of a veiled woman. Further references to homemaking are made through the use of everyday household items in place of human faces in her sculptural figures. The use of these items highlights the way that Muslim women are viewed as subservient and submissive both within and outside of Iranian culture. However, the idea that this view is not simply one reserved for Muslim women but instead can be found in ideas of femininity and the politics of the female identity in multiple cultural contexts seems to shine through in the use of household items that are culturally nonspecific. This allows Ghadirian to make a commentary on the difference between religious beliefs and practices and secularized political identities and express the idea that the political issues found in Islamic countries are not unique to Muslim cultural communities.
While the use of the veil in its most explicit sense is quite common in the works of female artists from Middle Eastern countries, as it is in the works of Neshat, al-Ani, and Ghadirian, other artists opt to use it unconventionally as a visual image to get similar points across about politicization. An example of this can be found in the works of Sara Rahbar (b. 1976), who was born in Tehran yet has always lived outside of Iran, namely in New York (Rahbar). Rahbar’s works, as a result, have largely dealt with the feeling of constantly being an outsider and the pain of trying to love two countries and identities that are simultaneously an intrinsic part of her own identity yet are also so grossly corrupt and cruel. She often deals with issues of nationalistic generalization, cultural responsibility, and the disregard for human life in exchange for survival:
My concerns are about a world that values symbols, statuses, belongings, moralities, laws, customs and beliefs, more than human life itself… In the end it is not distance that disconnects and cuts us off from one another, it is our way of looking, seeing and thinking… We have all cried a thousand cries and we have all witnessed all of this corruption and desolation. Yet we have become so paralyzed and numb to it all that we fall again and again. I do not have a name or a face anymore; I am Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan; this is my claim to fame… Our flags are soaked with blood — is it all right as long as it’s not mine? They are dropping bombs on our heads, they are killing off our souls, and we are metamorphosing and transforming the means of surviving it all. (Merali 2016)
These apparent concerns are seen clearly in her series love Arrived and How Red. This series of photographs depicts a couple: a masculine figure, wearing the typical camouflage soldier’s uniform, and a feminine figure, wearing a headscarf and a long tunic that appears “tribal” and in some ways Iranian (Rahbar 2014). As the series continues, the feminine figure becomes a Western style bride, wearing a white dress and an American flag as a veil. All the figures in this series are wearing ski masks, a reference to robbery and terrorism; the color red, seen in the American flag, the pomegranates, and other aspects of the photographs reference blood, a symbol of love and lineage as well as pain and detriment. The veil here is made political; it comes to represent “America” and “Iran” instead of its typical gender stereotypes. This allows Rahbar to parallel love between people with love of country quite explicitly.In this work, Rahbar seems to be stating that love of country trumps love of humanity; it demonstrates how militarization and nationalization of identity can lead to the assumption of an “inhuman” and strictly political identity, causing the numb blindness of the politicized individual and resulting in pain, an absence of empathy, and even death.
Another example of an unconventional use of the veil as a political symbol can be seen in the work of Turkish born artist Tulu Bayar. Her works are known to reflect upon “ issues related to identity, ethnicity, social and political realities, and human relationship to space and each other” (Bayar 2005). As a woman coming from a Muslim country who does not wholly identify with being “Muslim” yet is still labeled as such in America because of her nationality, Bayar is frequently forced to grapple with ideas relating to the politicization of identity in her own life. The label of “Muslim,” to her, does not suggest religious beliefs; instead, it implies a stereotyped identity consisting of the political ideologies of fundamentalist, Islam-dominated countries. Most importantly, this stereotype was created by Westerners in order to label or define something that they did not fully understand.
This idea is fully elaborated upon in her work Confluence (Figure 5). This two-channel video projection opens with two figures: one on the left, who appears “white” and “Western” and one on the right who appears “nonwhite and perhaps Middle Eastern” (this can be assumed through the juxtaposition of the figure with music that contains many Middle Eastern thematic and theoretical elements). The figure on the left wraps her hair in a headscarf, which appears to be some sort of veil. When the figure on the right begins to put on a headscarf as well, the expectations of the viewer for her to tie the scarf around her head like a hijab are quickly denied. Instead, she ties the scarf under her neck, clearly emphasizing the fact that she is not wearing an Islamicized garment, unlike the woman to the left. Given that one would expect the woman with the darker complexion (i.e. stereotyped as having a better likelihood that she came from a Muslim country of origin) to wear the veil rather than the pale skinned woman, this subversion of expectations is surprising and further riddled with ideas about race. This denial of expectations continues throughout the video. This piece ultimately suggests that stereotypes and perceptions are deeply rooted in the natural aesthetic qualities of individuals: skin color, hair color, facial features. These features function similarly to the sociocultural objects that signify race, religion, gender, etc., such as the veil, because they are imbued with stereotypical and politicized meanings that have been grossly exaggerated out of reality.
While each artist has varying approaches for 1) interpreting the notion of “Muslim identity” in both its Eastern and the Western sense, 2) interpreting gender identity, either as it exists alongside or interacts with this Muslim identity, and 3) interpreting what it means for Islam to be politicized, the similarities in tone throughout these works is remarkable. Each artwork is confrontational in the face of the viewer; each artwork is able to speak to an international audience in both the Islamic and Western worlds; and each artwork’s stance refuses to devolve into passivity. The urgency found in these works is what brings this collection ultimately together. These artists hold their viewers, and their surrounding cultures by extension, accountable to their ignorance, leading to the full dissection of the politicized identity of the contemporary Muslim and discussions about the implications of identifying as Muslim today.
To some, this curatorial approach may seem like it is in itself generalizing the identities of these artists in a way that is perhaps inaccurate. Should Bayar, Rahbar, and Neshat be examined within the same body of work? Or are they fundamentally different artists who are frequently grouped together because of their gender and apparent religious identities and nothing more? It can be admitted that there are definite problems with choosing to group these five artists together based in part on their gender and religious identities; however, the considerations of the Muslim identity in all five works discussed here are substantially similar enough, in my opinion, for these works to be grouped together. Exhibitions like this one, while they have a tendency to generalize, also offer new insight into the works of important artists in a way that brings new information and ideas to the public. This exhibition and the ones like it serve as a necessary evil: they may be problematic and generalizing in themselves, but they can also deconstruct preconceived notions in a way that will continue to benefit the general population for as long as the biases and stereotypes described remain pervasive in society.
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