What it really means to be an Arab woman at a time when women in the Arab world continue to be misrepresented is what the Multitudes exhibition attempted to deconstruct by featuring the works of established and emerging Arab women artists from Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
Most of the works on display at East London’s Rich Mix Centre dealt with conflict, discrimination, pain, isolation and alienation. The message about the condition of Arab women was mainly one of a dismal existence, a life of suffering and psychological and physical turmoil — the very stereotype the exhibition was supposed to challenge.
Curator Joud al-Tamimi said the intention behind negotiating an alternative narrative is not to paint a completely rosy picture of Arab women’s conditions.
“The experiences of Arab women, like all other women, are complex and diverse. Some are positive and others negative,” Tamimi said. “Patriarchy, sexism and misogyny continue to operate all around the world. To highlight only positive experiences is to ignore problems that continue to impact the lives of many.”
One of the most disturbing works was Purified, an explosion of red showing a crucified figure — a reference to victims of torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The red figure on a red background is reminiscent of Jesus’s crucifixion. Izdehar Afyouni used original images from Abu Ghraib as a direct reference to show displacement, disenfranchisement and demonisation of Arabs or the “other” figure.
“While the work is very bloody and disturbing, it is a critical commentary on the Western narrative surrounding the Arab region and its peoples,” Tamimi explained. “What it does is that it highlights the demonisation of the ‘other’ that is part of that narrative.”
The works of Egyptian fine art photographer Lubna Abdel Aziz showed the faces of women combining the beautiful and the brutal. The colours were subdued, the faces dream-like, sorrowful and intense but not without hope. In one of the photographs a disfigured woman held a green branch suggesting that she was comforted by the beauty of nature.
Describing Arwa al-Neami’s work Never Never Land, Tamimi said it forces viewers to reconsider preconceived assumptions about Saudi women by highlighting their activity and their use of humour. “The women in the video are driving bumper cars in a theme park in Saudi. The work is very light hearted, yet also very ironic and clever. A lot of the pieces highlight very positive, empowering and at times humorous experiences.”
Neami, originally from the mountain village of Rijal Alma in Saudi Arabia, was the first female to film inside Islam’s second holiest site, al- Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina.
There were two colourful “happy” works in the exhibition. Yemeni-Bosnian-American multimedia artist and visual story teller Alia Ali used images of the face to explore the issue of identity. Instead of a face in her Cast No Evil series, flowers take the place of the face of a hijab-clad woman. The rest of the photo features a variety of flower designs. The viewer inevitably asks who is this woman and how does she see the world?
“The assumption in the Western world is that women who cover [themselves] are oppressed and lack power. The Cast No Evil series subverts this assumption by imbuing the subject matter with power over the viewer,” Tamimi said. “The use of very bright and cheerful colours in the context of this series is also instrumental in challenging the Western world’s interpretation of veiling as an inherently negative experience.”
Odalisques, a digital photograph by Tunisia-based visual artist Hela Ammar, reflects on individual and collective identity.
Tamimi emphasised that she does not believe in the Western/Eastern dichotomy. “It makes it seem like people from different cultural backgrounds have essentially different experiences,” she said.
“Women’s experiences are shaped by a myriad of factors like class, ethnicity, religion, political economy, etc…,” Tamimi said. “For example, a working-class British woman might have more in common with a working-class Jordanian woman than with an upper-class woman from Britain.
“We have to acknowledge this intersection, if we are to gain any accurate understanding of the very complex realities in which women around the world operate.”
Multitudes was the first exhibition from an emerging curator. Tamimi, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, is a graduate of Politics and Near and Middle Eastern Studies from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her primary areas of interest and research include the politics of arts and culture and the politics of identity and gender in the Middle East.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.