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Volume 45, Number 1January/February 1994

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Reflections in Women's Eyes

Written by Anne Mullin Burnham

Like a poem that pushes the boundaries of language to say what is somehow beyond saying, art can both express an esthetic vision and articulate previously silent or unheard voices. It can profoundly change the way we view and think about our world and reflect afresh what we have seen to often or too closely to be aware of.

For five years Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi has sought out the art of women from across the Arab world. From North Africa through the Middle East and into the Gulf states she has interviewed museum curators and gallery owners, art critics and art historians. She has talked with artists in cities and countryside, reviewed countless thousands of slides and visited innumerable private art collections.

The fruits of her long research, juried by a distinguished advisory committee, will be on view in February, when the most comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Arab women artists yet assembled in the United States will open at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Showcasing 160 works by 70 artists from 15 countries in the Arab world - sculptors, painters, photographers, ceramists and computer, video and installations artists- it will break new ground by providing an extraordinary overview of the work Arab women artists are producing both in their own countries and abroad.

Nashashibi is exhibition director and president of the sponsoring organization, the International Council for Women in the Arts, a non-profit organization based in California and dedicated to promoting in the United States the work of women artists from the Third World. By presenting a wide variety of contemporary Arab women artists interpreting their own cultures, experiences and concerns, Nashashibi says, this exhibition will correct the still-pervasive romantic image of the passive Arab woman promulgated in the West through 19th-century Orientalist painters such as Delacroix and Gerome (See Aramco World, November-December 1984). It will give the work of professional Arab women artists greater exposure in the art world and art market of the United States, and it will increase international understanding of Arab societies through the extensive educational and interpretative programs planned in conjunction with the exhibition.

Many of the artists in Forces of Change, as the exhibition is titled, are familiar to museum- and gallery-goers in Europe and throughout the Arab world. Some have been featured in shows in New York, on the West Coast and at the Alif Gallery in Washington, D.C., but the majority will be new to American audiences. That this is so should not be surprising. Woman artists to the art-viewing public. A survey of major art galleries in New York in the 1970's showed that less than 10 percent of the featured artists were women. Until very recently, the most widely used art-history surveys were devoid of references to women artists.

It took the landmark exhibition Women Artists 1500-1950 at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 1976 to focus academic and public attention on the achievements of woman artists since the Renaissance. While that particular exhibition dealt with women artists in the Western tradition, co-curators Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin expressed the hope that it would stimulate interest in researching and presenting the work of women artist from the Orient, Africa, Latin America and the Near East.

The founding of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1987 accelerated the scholarly and public interest in the work women artists have produced and are producing today. Although shunned by many women artists and feminists who believe that the concept of segregating women in a separate museum continues the marginalization of their art, the museum is based on the premise that women's art needs a special forum now to make up for past neglect. Recent exhibitions at the museum include the work of contemporary Greek, Korean, Mexican and Polish women.

Gender bias by gallery owners and museum curators may becoming less prevalent today, but the Arab woman artist in the United States still faces the hurdle of broad ignorance of her culture and history. Lacking a large and long-assimilated Arab-American population to counter many Americans' stereotypical views, the United States still tends to see the Arab world as an exotic and primitive monolith. Media focus is more often on political upheaval, war or terrorism than on cultural and artistic achievements.

Considering this vacuum, the exhibition is organized around three major themes that emerge from the art that Arab women have been producing in the last 10 to 15 years. The first is "Forces of Change," focusing on contemporary life and society, with its problems of conflict and war, human rights and environmental degradation; the second is "Present Reflections on Rhythms of the Past'" an exploration of traditional artistic expressions and their influence on present art forms; and the third is "Image and Word'" interpretations of Arabic calligraphy and the use of the word as a mode of visual expression.

After generations of colonialism and warfare, occupation and cultural imperialism that touched every Arab country, many Arab artists would identify with Jordanian sculptor Mona Saudi's belief that "we belong to countries that have to be made and we have responsibility to make them...." In the introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue, Nashashibi, Lebanese artist Etel Adnan and anthropologist Laura Nader discuss the role women played in the nationalist movements in Arab countries, and their search for a language of artistic forms to express national and cultural identity.

Although Arabs are heirs to a legacy of more than 30 centuries of artistic endeavor, their studio art tradition is young- a product of the Arab world's encounter with European colonial influences of the 19th century. Arab studio artists, trained in Western artistic idioms, sought- and still seek- ways to recreate the reality of their lives and their esthetic vision in non-derivative manner.

This cultural split has been, for many of them, a cause of anguish and inner conflict. Iraqi artist Wasma' Khalid Chorbachi, writing about a series of abstract expressionist paintings she executed in the 1960's in response to war in the Middle East, wrote, "I...felt that these paintings were not me: 'the Arab and the Muslim'.... I had not been trained in an artistic language that would enable me to express the inner identity I so strongly felt....I was speaking [in] a foreign artistic language." Etel Adnan recalls the frustration she felt studying in America, when her English was not adequate to express her ideas and she was unwilling to use French in political protest against the war in Algeria. Her solution was, "I will paint in Arabic." Lebanese artist Saloua Rouda Choucair's life-long study of Islamic art was triggered by philosophy professor who relegated traditional Arabic art to a lower level than European art because it was not inspired by the human body.

Many Arab women artist have sought inspiration instead in the symbols and iconography of the ancient civilizations of Arab North Africa and the Near East. Iraqi Suad al-Attar fuses Sumerian, Mesopotamian or Assyrian motifs into dream-like poetic fantasies full of "the weight of tradition" but also characterized by deep introspection on the difficulties that modern women face in being taken seriously in male-dominated--that is, all-societies. Traditional folk art in the form of embroidery, rug weaving or decorative painting has been a continuous artistic outlet for Arab women. Many use the patterning elements of folk art as starting points for an exploration of color and form. Some, like self-taught Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine, have transformed such naive or folkloric art into individual artistic styles that remain rooted in tradition but transcend the limitations of repetition and a strict alphabet of icons.

One of the first Arab women artists to be recognized with a solo exhibition in Europe - at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947- Mahieddine's art has been characterized variously over the years as surrealist, primitive, art brut, or naive. But in the end it is less important to pigeonhole it than to appreciate its synthesis of Islamic ornamentation and natural motifs such as flowers, birds, grapes, fish, or peacocks' feathers, dancing women and abundant gardens in personal vision of a colorful and harmonious world. Egyptian artist Sawsan Amer, painting on glass or creating mixed-media collages, combines Coptic icons with real and imaginary birds.

While Mahieddine was lionized by the art world in Paris in the 1940's-she was interviewed by the famous surrealist Andre Breton and introduced to the world of high Parisian culture-contemporary Arab artists, regardless of gender, face a different situation. As Shehira Doss Davezac points out in her catalogue essay "Arab Women Artists in Transition," patrons not schooled in Western art provide a demand for traditional motifs and local themes... Their taste often runs to the familiar rather than to the innovative and they invest in works that have strong resonances of Arab life and culture... On the other hand, to have access to international artistic tribunals, artists often feel they must shun local styles in favor of an internationally recognized language of forms for which there is little demand or understanding in the Arab world."

The tension between these positions brings up the question addressed in the exhibition's introduction: "Is This Arab Art?" Should contemporary Arab art have a common denominator to be considered Arab? As Nashashibi and her co-authors point out, some critics confuse Arab art with Islamic art and jettison anything that does not fall within that definition. Others would criticize as an American copyist, say, a Kuwaiti artist who depicted skyscrapers, though "no major Arab city presents nowadays a landscape dominated by minarets and domes." The existence of a body of work that can be described as Arab, they contend, is not simply because artists from the 21 countries of the Arab world - despite diverse ethnic groups and culture patterns - share history, culture and language, but because the art world is no longer dominated by a single, Western-defined viewpoint of what constitutes contemporary art. The multiplicity or art styles and art centers nowadays creates what is a truly global art scene, and Arab artists contribute to it what is uniquely Arab by the simple fact of their art being a genuine and authentic expression of themselves and their culture.

Many, if not most, artists, however, would resist a qualifying ethnic adjective. British or American artists are not hyphenated with their ethnicity, and artist Sari Khoury says, "Identity and uniqueness are developed through interaction rather than through isolation....Art thrives through exchange and interaction......Our responsibility as Arab artists in the international community lies in our ability to interpret our culture to the world...."

The artists in Forces of Change interpret their societies and cultures in multiple views that capture the wide variety of experience of modern Arab women. Not surprisingly, given the recent history of the region, their reactions to revolution, war and occupation are frequent themes.

Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum creates powerful performance and installation art pieces combining both personal discomfort and danger as metaphors for the experiences of her family and all others caught in the terrors of the civil war in Lebanon. In her most recent work she explores the theme of the encounter between architectural structures and the human body. Untitled (1992) is an installation piece consisting of two wire mesh chairs, one significantly larger than the other. Innocuous at first, the rigid forms and uncompromising blackness of the wire at longer inspection evoke a foreboding institutional power, while the relative sizes of the chairs suggest domination and subjugation. On a purely esthetic level, however, the simple geometric forms give a visual clarity and repose to the piece. Together, these reactions cause viewers to question their normal experience of a commonplace household object.

Laila Shawa photographs the graffiti on the walls of her native Gaza before they are painted over by occupying army personnel. Then she superimposes geometric designs and silkscreens the results in an attempt to accentuate the messages and impose a sense of order on chaotic situation. Seeing herself as a chronicler of her times, she says, "I recorded a method of communication and punishments which has been sanctified by the civilized world."

The venerable Egyptian artist Inji Efflatoun spent four years in prison for her part in the social changes of the 1950's. There she continued to paint, producing such works such as Prison 126 (1960), where the rhythmically draped forms of the women crowded together, hardly limited by the boundaries of the canvas, suggest that their purpose and energy are undiminished by their confinement.

Inner turmoil, whatever its cause, is eloquently expressed by Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim, whose female figures, with their distorted features and exaggerated shapes, make a Munch-like cry for release, both literal and metaphoric. Syrian Laila Muraywid's constructions of painted hand-made paper, with their dark, brooding colors, ragged edges and suggestion of undecipherable stories, speak of her concern for human and animal rights.

Absence from the homeland has been a recurring fact of life for many Arab women artists. Yet, as art historian Lucy Lippard points out, artists working outside their own countries "have often compensated... by plunging the culture they have left behind ever more deeply into their works... The sense of and need for national identity is often more potent" than it would have been in the country of origin. Jumana El Husseini, working in Paris (See Aramco World, July-August 1990), or Samia Halaby in New York, have equal access to the store of memorized visual images from their homelands that continues to inform their work. And just as the language of an expatriate remains free of latter-day colloquialisms and idioms, artists who live abroad can be living time capsules of societies that have continued to evolve.

Despite the often weighty subject of their art, Arab women artists can be whimsical, decorative, or simply concerned with esthetic problems and solutions. Jordanian Hind Nasser is an abstract artist whose painted forms give the illusion and energy of three-dimensional sculpture. Lebanese Huguette Caland's Foule (1970) is a painted silk robe on the back of which faces are depicted peeping out from under the hem, while on the front they appear full-face and smiling.

Saudi artist Mounirah Ahmad Mosly is represented in the exhibition by a four-panel installation work called May You One Day Hear the Cry of a Window Being Born Into the World. Writer Ghassan al-Khunaizi explains that the work grew out of the idea for a mural, and its four sections are interrelated like the chapters of a book or the movements of a sonata. The panels are meant, he says," to reflect a woman’s world, memories and visions," and are titled "The City," "The Window," "The Doll" and "The Net." However this work is interpreted, its vibrant colors, suggested imagery and broken borders allows the viewer to respond uniquely, unfettered by any didactic program. Using materials such as leather and fur and multiple layers of linen background, combined with painting, Mosly has created a symphony of texture and color tied - or, literally, stitched - to the material of which a traditional icon, a Bedouin tent, is made.

Perhaps it is the Arab woman artist's relationship with an oral tradition and its expression in calligraphy that provides her with one of her most powerful artistic forms. As Kamal Boullata says in his essay "Modern Arab Art: The Quest and the Ordeal," Traditionally, Arab creativity revolved around The World: the word as spoken revelation and as visible image.... Arabs never ceased to be haunted by The Word..."

As a child, Iraqi artist Madiha Umar "marveled at the beautiful and intricate forms of Arabic calligraphy that border the gates of mosques [and] encircle their domes and minarets, and they enchanted me...." That enchantment led to a sustained interested in the form and expressive potential of individual Arabic letters that have been the cornerstone of her painting for more than 40 year." I wanted to free the Arabic letter from its old bondage so that it could stand out with its own expression and individuality," she says.

Calligraphic forms honed down to their clean, geometric essence provide sculptor Mona Saudi also with inspiration for some of her monumental stone sculptures, while painter Wijdan Ali of Jordan incorporates calligraphic elements in works that place her in the forefront of the contemporary school of Arabic calligraphic painting. Khairat al-Saleh of Syria creates highly decorative and beautifully colored etchings of calligraphy framed in the style of old Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, while Etel Adnan's watercolor and ink manuscripts fuse her interests in painting and poetry.

Whatever the medium or the inspiration of this art, the impact of Forces of Change of American ideas of what constitutes contemporary Arab women's art will be profound. The irony of an exhibition such as this is that good art, regardless of where or when or by whom it is produced, transcends boundaries of gender, country or ethnicity. What we demand of a work of art is that - although it may irritate, disturb, or baffle us, or simply pleas our eye - it should be like a good poem that, as poet Sam Hazo says, "we don't simply remember, but can't forget." Each time we return to it, we see something new, something that resonates on a deeper level. As a result, art challenges us to re-examine the world it creates and, in turn, the world around us.

Anne Mullin Burnham is director of education planning and programs at the World Affairs Council in Pittsburgh, and a free-lance writer specializing in the arts, travel and food.

This article appeared on pages 3-9 of the January/February 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1994 images.