The exhibition Here and Elsewhere, organised by the New Museum in New York two years ago, was an interesting turning point in the art world. Not only did the exhibition offer the first comprehensive survey of contemporary art from the Middle East, but even more remarkable was that out of the 45 Middle Eastern artists exhibited, almost half of them were women!
This number should not be shocking in the age of Girl Power, Beyoncé music videos, Michelle Obama rocking Carpool Karaoke and Lena Dunham showing her average-sized boobs in the television series ‘Girls’. Though in the art world, which is still dominated by male artists, the rapidly increasing number of female artists from the Middle East in museums is unexpected. What is happening? Does this mean that the culture in the Middle East is changing and women are acquiring more public power? Or does this mean that feminism in the Middle East is growing stronger and being recognised by the western world?
Even though the current situation in the Middle East is marked by conflicts, war and oppression; at the same time, there is a large group of artists trying to influence the situation from within, creating activist and engaged art. Women are playing an important role in this, voicing their opinions on society and traditions with art. They raise their voices and try to change not only the art world, but also the world they are living in.
Let’s have look at these strong women. Who are they and how are they going to change the world?
Shirin Neshat. Rebellious Silence. 1994.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist who explores the notion of femininity and gender politics in Iran through her works in film, video and photography. One of her most striking works is Rebellious Silence, a self-portrait of the artist, covered in a black headscarf, holding a rifle in front of her face. Farsi texts, written by two Iranian feminist poets, have been calligraphed on her forehead and cheeks. This artwork is the artist’s response to an unrecognisable Iran after the Islamist revolution and she is giving political critique through her work.
Boushra Almutawakel. The Fulla Series. 2011.
Boushra Almutawakel became known as the first female photographer from Yemen, who focuses on the subject of covered women, shown from a non-western perspective. Through her works she explores ways in which clothing can affect identity and assumptions about women. One of the works in which this becomes visible, is her photo series of the Fulla doll, a Muslim-inspired version of the Barbie doll. The photographer presents the doll as an alternative type of woman, attempting to show the world that it should be viewed with much more nuance.
Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali. Aruset Al-Moled. 2013.
Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali
Younger kids in the Middle East are getting involved and making an impact in the arts. The 22 year-old graffiti artist, Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali was one of Saudi Arabia’s first street artists. She has sprayed symbols of Mecca all around Jeddah, as an indictment of the over-development of the Holy City. Her works have gotten very popular and were shown recently in the first major contemporary art exhibition in Saudi Arabia.
Manal Al Dowayan. Suspended Together. 2011.
Manal Al Dowayan
Al Dowayan is one of the most famous female Saudi Arabian contemporary artists. Her work, including installations and photography, is mostly based on feminist critique. One of her most powerful works is Suspended Together, an installation piece showing a flock of doves, made from permission cards that women in Saudi Arabia must have signed by their husbands in order to be allowed to travel.
And last but not least, The Public House of Art's very own Tahmineh Monzavi from Iran. In her works she is exploring women’s roles in contemporary Iranian society. Not even having been imprisonment for a month can stop her: afterwards she created the amazing “All About Me; Nicknamed ‘Queen Maker’” series, currently shown at the Public House of Art.
These girls show that the Middle East should not be overlooked when it comes to great contemporary art. Creating art gives them a chance to speak, something which is often denied them by their societies, and reflect on social problems and change the world. They are willing to take risks and show they have balls.
Written by Amsterdam-based Freelance Writer Rosanne Schipper for The Public House of Art