The artist’s exploration of her identity was initially motivated by the 1991 Gulf War, after which there was a rise in anti Western feelings and a shift towards a more radical form of Islam. She also became interested in the work of the ‘Orientalists’: Painters, photographers and writers who went in search of the ‘Orient’. The yearning for the exoticism and spirituality of the region that had produced three world religions, brought artists onto the scene who provided the corresponding images. The first photo’s from the ‘Orient’ were met with great enthusiasm. The site of extreme difference or otherness. Sensuality, mysticism and decadence was a thread running throughout works often made specifically for a Western audience.
Jean-Leon Gerome, Veiled Circassion Beauty, c.1876
The painting depicts a Circassion woman, dressed in opulent clothing. These women were regarded as unusually beautiful, spirited and elegant, and as such were desirable as slave concubines. This reputation dates back to the Ottoman Empire when Circassian women living in the Sultan's Harem started to build their reputation as being extremely beautiful and genteel. As any Western artist would generally find it difficult getting Muslim women to pose, Gerome bought ‘authentic’ costumes from the bazaar on his travels and had ethnographic types model for him in his Paris studio [see Related Links below for image of this painting].
Antoin Sevruguin, Veiled Woman With Pearls, c.1890
A haunting image in which the pose lighting and veiling, create an air of mystery. Unlike Gerome, Sevruguin who was born in Tehran, was an insider who managed to capture a more realistic image of Persia. Photographing regional costumes was an acceptable method of ethnological research in the 19th Century. Many European museums bought Sevruguin’s work to compliment their scientific collection. He worked in Tehran for more than 60 years, producing over 7,000 images [see Related Links below for image of this photograph].
Stereotypical, negative, representations of Muslim women is not helped by the media. The West’s view on the rest of the world is often through a camera lens. Various stories of court cases regarding the right to wear a veil in towns and cities across Europe, only adds fuel to the debate. Amid the backdrop to the Iraq war and the Madrid and London bombings, suspicion grows towards anything hidden.
"For many it's an unnerving and infuriating encounter. I don’t think it’s because they’re thinking ‘you poor oppressed woman, I want to liberate you’, they’re thinking ‘you can see me and I can’t see you’, and that power balance is extraordinary." (Jananne Al-Ani) [see Related Links below].
Unfortunately, most people in the West associate the Muslim faith with either extremism or terrorism. As societies in the West become more and more diverse and multi-cultural, Muslim groups once known by their national or regional origin, are now seen as one or the same. From a Western perspective, the veiled woman is seen by many as subservient and without a voice. Of course the experiences of Muslim women today are as diverse and distinctive as any other religion or cultural tradition.
By Debbie Keable, student from the BA (hons) Contemporary Fine Art Course, Hull School of Art and Design 2009.