I have a lover who thinks the world
Of himself and when he sees me off
He cocks up
‘You couldn’t have had a better man.’
And I throw back:
‘Do you know of a better woman?’
– Hafsa bint Hamdan, 10th century Islamic Spain
It is no secret that throughout history, the voices of women have been suppressed. In terms of sexual relationships the female has been silenced, her body relegated to something to serve her male counterpart. The idea of a woman gaining pleasure from the carnal act was all but laughable. Society’s attitude towards women and sexual activity worldwide has historically forced the female character to be submissive to her husband. Should an unmarried woman dare to be involved in fornication, it was all to her detriment and ruin. It seems completely shocking therefore, that this poem was written by a Muslim woman in the tenth century, calling out her lover for his ego and offering him a riposte by emphasizing her own sexual prowess.
This poem is one of 24 verses written by women from the ancient Arab world that have recently been displayed in the Crypt Gallery in London. These poems were exhibited alongside the contemporary artwork of 48 female artists from all over the world in a show titled Radical Love: Female Lust. The exhibition’s title is perfect because the poetry is revolutionary in the way it completely alters the labels attached to women and sex, and completely challenges our perception and stereotype of females in the Middle East. The artists featured in the show span the globe, with artworks on display from every continent, reinforcing the fact that the poetry’s impact and its ability to communicate with women is universal. The exhibition incorporated a variety of media including embroidery, illustration, painting, photography and sculpture. The show was made even more poignant with its Valentine’s Day opening as a love letter to women everywhere.
Radical Love was curated by Roisin O’Loughlin, an Irish actress based in London with absolutely no ties to the artworld, thus eradicating any pretentious clichés to what has resulted in a very powerful exhibition. O’Loughlin stumbled on one of the poems by chance, an accident which prompted her to do more research into poetry written by females in the ancient Arab world. She then sent 24 poems written between the 7th and 12th centuries to two contemporary artists from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, and asked them to interpret the words as they pleased: Radical Love was born.
London’s crypt gallery is a former burial ground located beneath a church, comprising tunnels that wind into hidden alcoves that are waiting to be discovered. It served as the perfect setting for this poetry and artwork, which had only just been unearthed. Of the art on display, some of the most beautiful was a series of embroidered works by Saudi Arabian artist Mashail Faqeeh. She had sewn nude figures on round canvases amongst trees that are dotted with green and pink. The circular images were hung like a moon as it changes phases, which may be a reflection on the female reproductive and menstruation cycles that are linked to the moon and sea. The inclusion of embroidery in the show was also symbolic, as historically handcrafts have always been a woman’s domain.
One of the most bewitching works was by Irish artist Deborah Sheedy who exhibited a series of black and white photographs entitled I Keep My Passion to Myself. The images depict a woman dressed in a black, unidentifiable place. She seems to be moving around the pictures like a ghost. In one photograph she sits completely still, while in the next her arms are in the air like a classical ballerina. Her female subject is completely captivating. Who is she and what is she doing? We don’t know, but the title suggests that whatever it is, it is only to be revealed on her own terms.
The poems were displayed as printed text that was projected on top of photographs of the female body. Only one part of the woman’s figure is shown though: her stomach. This is perhaps the most powerful and important part of the female form, the shield for the womb where human life is born, something that patriarchal society simply cannot do without. The verses appear in black on top of a nude torso that has had patches of gold placed on top of it in photographs taken by Turkish artist Eylul Aslan.
You can’t turn me on with a cuddle
A kiss or scent
– Dahna hint Mas-hal, 8th century Iraq
Interestingly, hardly any of the artwork depicted men. Nearly all of the art was a figurative celebration of the female form. Orla de Bri’s sculptures showed women in positions of sexual enjoyment. They have been depicted with golden horns amongst thorns and look as though they have broken free of their male partners. In another image of female empowerment, Jamaican artist Mikela Henry-Lowe painted a portrait of a veiled woman. Her subject stares out at the viewer defiantly, yet the viewer’s attention is drawn towards her mouth. Here Henry-Lowe has pixelated the skin around the lips. Maybe, she is highlighting the fact that she has something important to say.
The images that were used in the promotion of the exhibition have been taken by Saudi Arabian artist Nouf Alhimiary. Her photographs show a doe-eyed woman in a pink veil in various portraits with roses. In one image, she is depicted in profile with a yellow rose in her mouth with smaller pink flowers spilling out of the scarf on her head and onto her chest, while in another the girl clutches these flowers and pushes them into her eyes. It is not clear what the images are trying to represent. However, they are as beguiling as they are beautiful. Both roses and the colour pink are typically associated with femininity. Yet these images are more than just pretty. The girl is deep in thought but we don’t know why. Moreover, why has she felt the need to place these roses, with their stems and thorns still attached, into her face? The eyes are the organs of sight. Maybe this action is a bid to see the world through a rose-tinted light. Also among the Middle Eastern artist’s on show was Noor Issa from Syria who exhibited an abstract painting of black, red and blue. Her inclusion is poignant as profits from sales of work in the show are all being donated to Syrian Refugees.
I have raced with lovers at
Love’s racetrack and
Beaten them all at my own pace
– Israqa al-Mulheribbiyaa, pre-Islam
Radical Love was a mark of female solidarity, promoting women collectively as one, regardless of race or religion. Through visual art and poetry the exhibition succeeded in freeing women from submission and reinforced the fact that they don’t need men to empower them, they can do that for ourselves.
All of the artworks and poetry can be seen on the exhibition’s website: http://loveradicallove.wixsite.com/lust