Arab women are typically perceived as repressed females. They are often misinterpreted as being subordinate to men, lacking the same freedoms as their western counterparts. However, more often than not, it is Arab females, not men, who are the pioneers of the burgeoning Middle Eastern art world. Biennials, galleries and exhibitions across the region are being headed by women. London has recently seen a surge in shows that champion females from the Arab world including Etel Adnan, Zaha Hadid and Mona Hatoum. The Multitudes exhibition, part of the Arab Women Artists Now festival at Rich Mix in London, comprises nine female artists of Arab descent and re-emphasizes not only that Arab Women Artists do exist, but also that they are just as creative, expressive and talented, if not more so, than society has been leading us to believe.
Spread across two floors, the artwork on display challenges our preconceived ideas about how Arabic women are portrayed. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is how the artists have depicted the female body. Across paintings, photographs and sculpture we see depictions of the bare back, the hijab and also overt representations of bare breasts. In the opening wall text, curator Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi, a graduate of School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which also happens to be where I studied for my MA, writes ‘it is about Arab women reclaiming their narratives, their bodies and their experiences.’ The exhibition upstairs opens with Tunisian artist, Hela Ammar’s Odalisques, which depicts a partially nude woman, who has been photographed with her back to the camera. She has been captured against a blue backdrop in a halo of pink flowers, which match the plants printed on the scarf on her head. The title is suggestive of what is missing, seemingly this would be clothes, however the figure does not reveal herself to the audience, we don’t see her face or her hair, only the bare back. Beside this image is Alia Ali’s Cast No Evil Series, which is just as colourful and beguiling as Ammar’s opening portrait. Across a series of photographs, the hijab is presented in multiple guises against a range of printed backgrounds. In two of the depictions, the headscarf, like the woman in Ammar’s photograph, has its back to the viewer, while in the other two, another textile stands in place where the female face should be. The scarves and their backdrops are vibrantly coloured and patterned. Ali provides us with fuchsia pink strips, polka dots, florals, paisley and a material covered in a camel print. By layering rich fabrics together the artist adds layers and depth to the western perception and stigmatization of the hijabi woman.
Possibly the most striking works are also the least colourful or obviously figurative. These come in the form of two sculptural works by Nour Malas, a Syrian artist based in London. In Good Breast, Bad Breast, two round forms of jesmonite are linked together by a thread. They look a little like percussion cymbals, however one is red, while the other roundel is white. The piece is an exploration of the body through the mother, whose breasts provide food for the infant child. The title is interesting though, how can one breast be good and the other bad? She forces the viewer to think about how we place value on the female body. In another piece, Pomegranates, two circular plaster disks that have been covered with latex are hung side by side. In the centre of each of the disks is a round bump that look distinctly like nipples. The use of latex as a material seems quite daring here, as it is often associated with fetish wear and sexuality. It is as if Malas wants to challenge the audience, softening the sexual nature of her artwork with its title. It is worth noting that pomegranates have long been a symbol of female fertility throughout history and perhaps the work carries on from Good Breast, Bad Breast in an exploration of the female body as a means of carrying and supporting children.
The exhibition takes a more political stance in Izdehar Afyouni’s Purified, in which a bloody, red, tortured figure has been painted against a pink background, mimicking the stance of Christ on the cross. Afyouni explores the body as a revolutionary tool and used images from Abu Ghraib prison as a reference. In a slightly softer work, Nessma Djhouri’s Hessian portrays two tortured hands grappling against each other, against a rough brown, hessian background. The work is purported to be an expression of restriction and scathing and this can certainly be felt in the ice-cold grey colour of the hands, which are detached of any body and locatable place.
The move away from the exploration of the exterior is also seen in Lubna Abdel Aziz’s work. Amongst many images fully clothed figures appear in contorted positions with heads that have been distorted in some way. Abdul Aziz’s characters seem as though they are in deep states of pain and distress, it seems almost cruel to describe them as beautiful. However, there is something bewitching about one particular figure who rests her head on a wooden table in a state of collapse. Red roses spout out of the collar of her dress where her neck would be. It is as though the Abdel Aziz is reminding the woman, that despite whatever it is she might be struggling with, there is still beauty in the world. Her other images are a little more torturous. In Survived, a woman in red sits amongst darkness, clutching a plant to her chest, the face area is left blank, but a scar has been made across it.
A similar distortion is visible in the downstairs gallery in Houda Ghorbel’s Autoportrait. The text accompanying the triptych reads: ‘if the body shape shifts at every wound, at every moment of joy…if the body beholds the remains of its memory…what shape would it take?’ The most transfixing of the images shows the portrait of a woman with a ring around her right eye and her mouth. It looks as though her whole body has then been covered in lace, creating a strange textured and disfigured picture. In reference to the quote, one may ask is this a representation of hurt or joy, or both? One may ask what our own bodies would look like if they too moved at every memory. The exhibition finishes again with Hala Ammar. Her Purification series has the same sense of voyeurism as Odalisques, but with a little more movement and context here. The woman pictured in the four images can be seen washing herself with red liquid. The act of cleansing oneself calls into question ideas of impurity and sin, which has been reinforced by the fact that the figure here is wearing white. In an exhibition that aims to reclaim the female Arab body, the work again causes the audience to consider our preconceived notions of attached to how we evaluate both the internal and external female appearance.
In Arwa Al Neami’s Never Never Land a group of Saudi women drive bumper cars in a theme park. Filmed in a Kingdom where women are not permitted to drive actual vehicles, it is a humorous, yet serious socio-political comment on existent power structures and gender dynamics in the region. The title may be understood to a have a double meaning: first, a reference to fantasy, as a representation of something that can only happen in an amusement park setting and secondly, the repetition of the word never, stresses the unlikelihood that the women in Al Neami’s video would ever be able to drive motor cars in the near future.
Multitudes succeeds in challenging the stereotype of a ‘typical’ Arab woman as perceived by the western media. Across the two galleries, each artist presents us with a new way of looking and understanding, freeing themselves from the typecast image in which they often find themselves.
Multitudes is on display at Rich Mix as part of Arab Women Artists Now until 19 March