The Middle Eastern artist: social responsibility in the Western context
Ocotber 6, 2005
Last week, I attended an event at the New School, New York, on Aperture's new exhibition, Nazar: Contemporary Photography in the Arab World. It was a panel discussion with Wouter Deruytter and Lalla A. Essaydi, both present to talk about their photography.
The exhibition included many artists, but Deruytter and Essaydi were the only two speaking on this particular occasion. Their works and talks are not necessarily representative of the entire show or project, but they were extremely disappointing. Nazar was structured to include Western views on the Arab world and Arab views on the Arab world, two extremes, which, presented side by side, brought audiences no closer to an understanding of realities in the Arab world.
Wouter Deruytter's presentation was very problematic. He spoke about his experiences, an invited guest and commissioned photographer of Arab royalty. His subject matter includes royal horses, other animals, residences, etc., and his photographs represent how those in power in the Arab world want to be seen.
Someone in the audience asked if Mr. Deruytter thought about photographing "the ugliness" and not just "the beauty" of the Arab world. Mr. Deruytter responded that there is a lot of ugliness in the Arab world but that he prefers "capture the beauty" – royal clothing, animals, structures. I find it frustrating that Mr. Deruytter and audience members had such trouble grasping that there is a lot of beauty in the Arab world beyond the palace context, but that is another subject.
The next speaker was Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan artist, who represented the "Arab gaze on the Arab world." She prefaced her slides by saying, "I am uncomfortable thinking of myself as a representative of all Arabs," which was an encouraging note. She also made it clear that she has been living and studying in the US for many years and shows her works for a Western audience.
The Aperture Foundation's event handout said Essaydi's art, "which often combines Islamic calligraphy with representations of the female body, addresses the complex reality of Arab female identity from the unique perspective of personal experience" and concludes with a quote from her, "I invite viewers to resist stereotypes."
Ms. Essaydi's invitation to resist stereotypes is commendable; however, I am concerned that her work encourages those stereotypes more than anything else. Iranian artists share Ms. Essaydi's potentially problematic visual vocabulary – the word, the veil.
Though the content of what is expressed by these words may indicate resistance and "subversiveness" as she put it, and tell fascinating and challenging personal narratives, the majority of audiences will never get to that point in understanding the work. Audiences see the veil, the word – they see what they want to see and what they feel they know - the stereotypes. For them, this vocabulary is confirmation, not resistance.
If a Middle Eastern artist really cares about inviting viewers to resist stereotypes, I think we have to change our vocabulary to such that does not limit itself to the veil and written communication that few among Western audiences can comprehend.
It is interesting to me that Ms. Essaydi thinks that she can "subvert" people in a language they don't understand and using symbols they already have such deeply entrenched conceptions about. People have their ideas about the word and the veil and showing them on a body or showing them on a white sheet or showing them on a wall (as in Ms. Essaydi's work) is not going to move people to reconstruct their perceptions of the Middle Eastern world. It will only further entrench them in their own stereotypes.