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The Defiant Act of Moving Forward

Marjorie A. Renno GRFA 782 Thesis Writing II J. Girandola May 2011

I had the profound opportunity to visit the United Arab Emirates in January 2011 as an exhibiting artist. I traveled to the other side of the world to meet and work with individuals who had been raised with very different religious and cultural norms. Throughout this experience, I learned that many of my own beliefs on the Middle East and its people had been shaped by the narrow imagery I had accepted from the evening news in America. I was in an area that was at peace, not war, and that welcomed Americans. I spoke at length with Muslims who talked about being agents of peace and who were as horrified by terrorism as their Christian counterparts. During the trip, I met and worked with Arab women, not far from my own age, who were empowered and respected members of their community. Unlike its neighboring countries, the UAE promotes gender equality and the Constitution of the UAE guarantees equal rights for both men and women.1 Throughout the trip, the more I spoke with these women, the more I felt a sincere connection to them and their art. This incredible cultural experience has instigated many questions on my part as an artist. At the forefront is whether my connection to their work is due to a valid thread that runs through each of our artworks despite global distances and cultural differences or if that connection is simply the fabrication of rose-tinted memories? Therefore, my topics for this writing project focused on an exploration of Contemporary Arab Art, particularly Asian Woman Artists. My goal was to come to a better understanding of my own work, as an American woman and artist, within a wider global context. I intend to demonstrate that the connection I felt to their work was due to underlying similarities in our works; core elements that speak to contemporary female artists on an international level.

Women in the UAE. UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. Web. 14 February 2011. 2

The work of Layla Juma

Among the first women I met and worked with was an artist named Layla Juma. Here she was not in the role of artist, but of chairman and curator of the 29th Annual Juried Exhibit of the Emirates Fine Arts Society. Throughout the week, while visiting various galleries, we came into contact with a breadth of her work, from paintings to sculpture. While visiting The Flying House, home to pioneering artworks in the contemporary art scene of Dubai, I was struck by a piece that turned out to be Laylas. Entering the room, there were a dozen large digital prints on the wall above, what appeared to be, an empty display case. Approaching the prints, one might have guessed them to be images of clay and glass forms. Sort of a soft ivory tan color, each form appeared to be molded and twisted into an object where shadows danced in its creases. From some of these structures hung a clear figure, almost appearing to be blown glass until you approached it. Once face to face with the display case, you realized it was not empty. In the center was a piece of chewed gum, sitting atop its discarded wrapper. It took a moment to put two and two

together, but suddenly a flood of both disgust and awe overcame me. Those were not clay and glass forms, but photographs of the artists chewed gum, still fresh with clinging saliva. This was Laylas 2006 work entitled Beauty & the Beast which had exhibited at the 2008 Singapore Biennial. There is an obvious chuckle to be had when thinking of chewing gum in Singapore, as they banned chewing gum in 1992 because of a litter problem.2 Keep in mind, this work was created two years before the biennial and selected by a panel to be sent, not the artist. This small bit of irony is but a coincidence.

Singapore to Partly Lift Gum Ban. BBC News (UK). 15 March 2004. Web. 01 May 2011.

The act that we should be focusing on is that of the chewing itself. An Arab woman is creating work using her body, more specifically her mouth, and documenting both the impact of this act and the saliva left behind. The act of chewing being if not private, surely intimate, strictly related to the body.3 Lets consider this in the context of an Arab woman in a middleeastern country. Cosmopolitan Dubai has the most relaxed social codes in the conservative Gulf, but authorities enforce strict decency laws and regularly crack down on people accused of pushing the limits...4 Less than a year before our trip, a British couple (who were not dating) greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek and received fines of $270 and a month in prison. Upon appeal, the courts decision was upheld. Juma is working with a common item, often associated with children. In this situation, it becomes very personal and potentially very provocative. One would have to question if it

would have stood up to Sharjahs decency laws if exhibited in the artists home emirate. At this years Sharjah Biennial, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation (who runs this event) was fired on orders from Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, after numerous complaints from the public about an artwork in a public square that included sexually explicit Arabic slogans and poetry.5 A panel, not the director, had selected the work. The artist had intended to give voices to the nameless victims of rape during the Algerian Civil War of the

DeMarchi, Christina. Lalya Juma: Art in Essential Forms. Nafas Art Magazine. October 2008. Web. 07 February 2011.

Surk, Barbara. Dubai Kissing Couple. Huffington Post. 04 April 2010. Web. 15 May 2011. 5 Kennedy, Randy. Sharjah Biennial Director Fired Over Offensive Artwork. NYTimes Online. 07 April 2011. Web. 15 April 2011.

nineties. None of this made a difference when considering the position of the director, when decency was called into question. This spawned a reaction just up the road at the Art Dubai Festival where numerous works were also pulled and shown only in back rooms for fear of offending decency. When viewed within the confines of the decency laws that the artist lives and works within, Jumas work stands as a testament to gentle insolence. It is not simply a common material. It is not simply an exploration of miniature form. It is an Arab woman leaving both a violent and sensual mark. She then elevates the status of her mark from that which previously was discarded to that which is now revered. It is not brash in its imagery or loud in its political commentary. Its strength lies within its plainness. While this piece is still and monochromatic, I cant help thinking of Marilyn Minters 2009 video work Green Pink Caviar. Both involve food materials; both honestly explore sculptural form through the use of the human body, which is what makes them so provocative. They are remnants of private acts now publicly on display, forcing viewers to consider their own private acts within a new context.

The work of Lalla Essaydi

Once I returned home, I continued my exploration of Arab woman artists. I visited the Benton Museum in April and as I stepped into the gallery housing the Photo Identities exhibit, I was instantly pulled to the wall on the side of the entryway where a photograph by artist Lalla Essaydi was hung. My eyes met the gaze of the photographed woman standing before me, emitting a profound silence. All that was visible were this young womans eyes, forehead and toes. She was wrapped in what appeared to be a sheet, mimicking the draping of an abaya, or traditional Islamic dress. That fabric flowed across the floor and was stretched across the wall

behind her. Within its folds were the sweeping lines forming Arabic calligraphy. Beginning with her forehead and continuing on her toes, were these elegant script lines in henna. Matching the red-brown dye now decorating her skin, every inch of the fabric room she stood in and the white robe she was wrapped in, were covered in this writing. The profound silence of this photograph is only broken by the endless story the writing depicts. At the museum, there was no translation of the text, but some might argue none is needed. This woman is confined within the silence of a dress that covers her mouth. She is confined within the walls of a room that the viewer cannot know. All the while, she is standing stoically upon the very words she is being denied. This calligraphic writing, a sacred Islamic art form, inaccessible to women, constitutes an act of rebellion6 This becomes more clear from the information next to the artwork that includes an explanation of this series. This is one image from Converging Territories which included women and children photographed in an unoccupied house in Morocco. This is the very house that the artist would be sent to for a month at a time as a youth, for any indiscretions. She would be isolated by silence, though servants would be sent with her for her exile. Among the most widely held values in this area of the world is that of family honor and the constant reinforcement that the family comes before the individual. While we are familiar with the concept of patriarchal systems in America, our separation of church and state provides us with a very different legal foundation. By placing family law in the domain of religious institutions, most Middle Eastern and North African states have given control over issues that

Essaydi, Lalla. Feminist Artist Statement. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Web. 09 April 2011. 6

dramatically effect women to institutions that are gender biased.7 In the artists childhood, there was no need to protect the child from such severe punishments as banishment and isolation if that is what the patriarch had determined as necessary to protect family honor. No family members indiscretions would be tolerated, especially if they were in public. In a society based on the family dynamic, the only place for the individual is within their specified role within that family group. It is a clear assertion of power for an individual to step outside their family and make work as an individual, in this case artwork. She not only faced down the geographic space that had served as her prison, but attacked the modest dress that some view as an effort on the part of males to define a womans space. The artist recaptures this space (both geography and clothing) in order to redefine both this space and herself. In each image in this series, the artist tells her own story, as well as the complex story of Arab woman through a quiet, yet powerful act of rebellion.

The work of Shirin Neshat

No survey of contemporary Arab female artists, no matter how small, could go without including Shirin Neshat. The Iranian-born artist was exiled during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and unable to return home for 11 years. Completing her studies at the University of California, Berkeley, she returned to an Iran in the 1990s that she did not recognize. Neshat dealt with her sense of displacement by trying to untangle the ideology of Islam through art.8 At the forefront of Neshats exploration is the concept of cultural gender roles. To better frame this complexity

Suad, Joseph and Susan Slyomovics. Introduction Women and Power in the Middle East. UPENN Press, Philadelphia. 2001. p. 5 8 Shirin Neshat Photo Essay. Time Magazine Europe. Web. 14 March 2011. 7

for the foreign viewer, consider Fatemeh Etemad Moghadams explanation of gender from the viewpoint of its legal and ideological struggle:

The constitution of the Islamic Republic states that no one can be forced into a specific occupation, or exploited in the job market. Irrespective of race, language, and sex, people are entitled to equal access to employment, provided that such access is not contrary to Islamic principles, public welfare, and the rights of others. While the Constitution is not explicitly gender biased, the reference to Islamic principles can be used as an obstacle to equal access to employment. According to the clergy, Islamic ideology emphasizes the complementary aspects of the biological differences between men and women, and considers family not individual as the basic social unit. Thus it can be argued that the proper place for women is at home, that men as heads of households should be given priority to women in employment, and that women are biologically unfit for certain occupations.9
In the late 1990s, Neshat created a trilogy of poetic, split-screen video installations that presented the viewer with a complex commentary on these very roles within Islamic culture. The first of these video installations is titled Turbulent. The 10-minute installation splits the viewers attention between two videos of identical auditoriums on opposing walls. The stark use of black and white footage filters out the extraneous distractions and forces the viewer into this place and time. Upon the films opening, we see an auditorium to our left filled with males in white shirts opposing its empty counterpart on the right. As the camera pans simultaneously through each theater, the sounds of ancient Persian music stream in.

Moghadum, Fatemeh Etemad. The Political Economy of Female Employment in Postrevolutionary Iran. Women and Power in the Middle East. UPENN Press, Philadelphia. 2001. p. 194 8

The audience to the left erupts in applause, as a single performer enters each stage. To the left, a confident male figure walks forward, acknowledges his audience and turns to face the viewer of the film. The singer is positioned towards what appears to be the back of the stage with both he and the crowd now looking directly at the viewer. In the vacant auditorium on the right, a female figure, swathed in black steps forward to the microphone. Her back stays to the film viewer, while she faces the sea of empty seats. The male singer begins his song, which slowly unfolds into a smoldering serenade. Both his audience and his female counterpart, on the stage to the right, remain still. After his threeminute performance, he turns to bow to the applauding audience. The music softens as he bows, but as it should be fading off, the music transitions into a new arrangement. He turns back around to face the viewers of the film. His facial expression seems to question the growing music. He steps forward to his microphone and peers straight ahead, as if looking at the second performer. The music becomes more trance-like and her body sways as it becomes evident that part of the sounds we are hearing is a chant coming from the cloaked female. While the video of the male performer maintains its image of the still performer, the camera on the female performer begins to rotate around her. First revealing the flowing movements of her hands, then, as her face is revealed both the musical rhythms and her physical performance begin to intensify. Her vocals erupt into a powerful chant that fills the cavernous theater.

As the camera now bears down on her from the front, we lose the image of the empty auditorium and only the skin of her face and her hands stand out against the dark backdrop as she releases the full arsenal of her voice. Moving far beyond a passionate love song, her rhythmic

cries grow much more guttural with each passing note. The camera begins to move again and again her vocal interpretations intensify. Sounding more and more beast-like, she shatters the notion of a delicate female. As the camera spins around her, the reverberation of her sounds echo to fill the auditorium. As quickly as she sends these powerful waves of sound out, she appears to rein them back in. Returning to an image of her skin contrasting against the black fabric both she and the stage are draped in, her sounds become a poetic response to her male counterpart. As her vocals soften, she reduces them to violent breaths. Bringing these breath sounds to the edge of silence, she returns to a wailing chant. This chant grows into an agonizing screech that envelops the melodic tones she has been singing on top of and takes her trancelike sound to a place that shatters the very silence she began the first three minutes of the film in. As aggressively as her sound broadened, at the end of her seven-minute performance, she narrows her sound back to the empty room, void of people and sound, she began with. The video ends with both her and the male performer standing at their respective microphones, backs to the auditoriums, in silence. The complex imagery of the male performer, in front of an audience, appearing to sing a love song to the female on the opposing wall is layered with contradictions. She keeps her back to him for her own stirring performance to maintain her position on a stage in what appears to be an empty room. A room that we assume would be filled with a female audience if it would be permitted. While Essaydis rebellious act maintained the silence of her childhood memories, Neshats uses sound as she disguises her own insubordinate act as a concert. There is a fine line between determination and defiance; here the female singer obliterates that line. Despite her back to the male singer, despite the empty theater, despite her silence in the beginning, she unfurls an unrelenting demonstration of force. Regardless of the defined gender roles that this


work attempts to explore, it illustrates the power the female holds as the males on the opposite wall sit captivated.

My own Artwork
The long-term vision of my work is rooted in the concept of creating art that instigates personal awareness. The foundation of my work is built upon my daily practice of walking and the various ways in which I record and interpret those walks. These artworks then serve as journals of my own human experience. The physical manifestation of my work throughout this program has been that of sculptural installations, most recently including video. I deconstruct these intentional walks into what I experienced as their essence. I then use that to create an installation for my audience that allows them to share the common experience of this essential moment. While my work has taken many forms, the artistic action of the walk has been my most consistent catalyst. Among my earliest and most powerful personal memories are very specific walks. For me, the physical action of the walk is about the intentionally defiant decision to move forward. The reoccurrence of water imagery, specifically bodies of moving water, serve as a boundary. The beginning and the ending of my walks become less important than the space in between, the moving bodies of water I often walk along serve to maintain that momentum. I believe that what we know is shaped by where we know or at least where we have experienced. The quality of attention we give a place or an experience is fundamental in understanding it. As an artist, I deconstruct an experience to better understand a moment or a place as the sum of its parts and then subsequently place value on each of those parts. It is those individual parts that can provide my audience with a shared experience that we might construct a new reality from. May hope is that the audience may come to understand their own place on a


new level, as the attention to its details paid by the artist adds complexity to their own future experiences. As an artist, I am able to communicate the essence of a place by introducing a sense of discovery on the part of my audience, constructing a new reality of shared experience. The artwork I had on display at the Sharjah Art Museum in the UAE was titled Be Still. It was a video installation on a five-minute loop. Walking up the hallway of galleries, the sound from the installation floated softly through. Revealing itself as little more then white noise, it was not until approaching the installation that its identity could be discerned. Entering the charcoal gray room, the viewer is confronted with a large-scale video, filling the wall to the right. Rather than being set in the middle of the wall in the fashion of a movie projection, it is aligned with the bottom edge of the floor. This intentional placement of the projection is intended to extend the space and force the viewer to pause and consider where they might be standing. The video has been stripped of color, so that the imagery becomes one long bleached out enigmatic movement. It could be smoke or it could be sand, but whatever it is, it is moving. As the movement intensifies, the viewers come to realize they are watching water as both the imagery and the sound compliment each other and clarify the subject. This was one particular point on one particular walk where the physical movement of the water became overwhelming. The intention is for the viewer to experience this same feeling in order to know a place they never have physically visited. In this installation in Sharjah, the viewer is forced to pause and physically experience the movement of a place that is on the other side of the world. They are asked to defy their own accepted notions of what they know by broadening the concept of where they know.


Islamic art fulfilled a primordial role in the life of Muslim cities. Its ubiquitous presence served as a permanent reminder of spiritual reality and offered man a direct visual access to the truth an access that did not rely on abstract scientific theories, but on a refined sensorial experience appealing to the heart and to mans sense of intellectual vision.10 (Brown) While it initially speaks to traditional Islamic art forms, the above statement can easily be applied to the work of the women I have examined in this paper; but how does it apply to my own work, as I am not Islamic or from a Muslim city? Each of the women I have written about in this paper, myself included, are using refined sensorial experiences to offer our viewers direct visual access to the truth. In our cases, the truth of the artist: as intimate art-making tool, as defined individual, as one who untangles ideologies and as one who deconstructs experiences. From this exploration, one of the core elements that I found to speak to contemporary female artists on an international level is this underlying act of defiance. Whether it is Jumas gentle insolence in using her body to create work or Essaydis quiet rebellion to confront her past or Nehshats subtle insubordinance in exposing gender inequalities or it is my own defiant act to move forward; we are all creating work which challenges conventional notions in order to open our viewers up to the potential of their own broader visions.


Brown, Carl L. Basic Principles of Islam and their Social, Spatial and Artistic Implications. Madina to Metropolis: Heritage Change in the Near Eastern City. Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ. 1993. 13