Occupying Space and Filling the Silence – Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond
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Occupying Space and Filling the Silence – Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond

Historically speaking, the art world has almost always been characterised by a gaping absence in regards to the voices of women artists, even more so with women artists originating from the Global South. Even in the twenty-first century, in spite of all the global advancements being made toward a more equitable socio-cultural landscape, research still points to a range of additional obstacles that women in the art world are subject to, unlike their male counterparts. Data collected from a 2017 study showed that only 13.7% of living artists represented by European and North American galleries were women1. Findings from another 2019 study highlighted White men as the most overrepresented demographic in the collections of major U.S. art museums, accounting for more than 75% of all artists represented2. The same study placed White women as the second most represented demographic at 10.8%; in stark contrast to women of colour, who were represented at less than 1%3. The gaps in artistic representation (particularly with the representation of women of colour) are then evidently still alive and well, even today.

Nine Lives, 2010. Oil on wood panel, each panel 61 x 61 cm. Courtesy of Michael and Seren Shvo. ©Hayv Kahraman.

In the face of such despairing statistics, it’s no surprise that changes within the art world are underway, emerging slowly but surely nevertheless. The Royal Ontario Museum’s most recent exhibition, Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond, is part of these efforts being made to address the chasm of representational disparity in the art world. Collaboratively curated by Dr. Fahmida Suleman and Dr. Silvia Forni, the exhibition features works by twenty-five different artists whose practices encompass a wide variety of mediums and an even wider range of thematic concerns. As the title of the exhibition suggests, all twenty-five artists are women who trace their roots back to the Islamic world in some shape or form— having either been born in or being members of the diasporic communities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Syria, Turkey, Uzbekistan, or Zanzibar. Needless to say, the exhibition caters to an almost unprecedented assortment of female voices and experiences on a global level, even being dubbed by some as ‘the first of its kind in Canada’4.

Bittersweet, 2022. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 213 x 152 cm. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. ©Lubaina Himid. Courtesy of the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate.
(Detail) O’Sister, 2021, installation view. Ink and acrylic on tussar silk, 160 x 195 x 55 cm. The Eternal Return of the Same exhibition, 2021. Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Cromwell Place, London. Photo: Lucy Emms. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition is broadly divided into three thematic strands: Space, Movement, and Power; each of which are situated within a larger curatorial framework of issues pertaining to migration and displacement, freedom and oppression, sexuality, spirituality, violence, and colonialism. Being and Belonging, rather than simply championing diversity then, takes it a step further by embodying the very essence of the word itself. This is evident, not just through the vast range of artists participating in the exhibition and the rich selection of thematic concerns they have on display, but also through the multitude of approaches being applied to each of them. For instance, both Hana Elmasry and Sulafa Hijazi’s work in the ‘Space’ subcategory of the exhibition deals significantly with textiles from the Islamic world; but both do so in radically different ways and to radically different ends.

Elmasry’s series of paintings, under the title Universally Malleable (2019), repurpose prayer mats as substitutes for canvases. Each mat is adorned with a delicately rendered female figure painted over it, quite literally framing notions of the body and female sexuality within Islamic ideological structures and their conceptions of womanhood. The artist’s deliberate decision to use prayer mats as the holding space for these women’s bodies reflects and challenges viewers’ perceptions regarding the role of religious institutions in sexualising, objectifying, and dismissing women’s identities. The prayer mats therefore represent the artist’s reimagining of religious spaces devoid of the male gaze; spaces where, as Elmasry herself puts it, the female body ‘exists to serve the soul and not the male species’5.

On the other hand, Sulafa Hijazi’s piece, Dress (2019), whilst also making use of the Islamic world’s rich tradition of textiles, does so in a manner strikingly different to Elmasry’s work. Dress consists of over three hundred different QR codes digitally printed onto a canvas and reconfigured so as to echo the hand-embroidered motifs characteristic of traditional Middle Eastern clothing. Each QR code corresponds uniquely to a particular article, video, image, or sound from the internet, thereby facilitating a collective digital encounter of women-centric narratives originating from the Arab world. This sense of multiplicity in Hijazi’s work goes on to create the space necessary for a refashioning of Syrian and Palestinian women’s identities; it allows room for further layers of complexity to counteract the often stereotypical and one-dimensional perceptions of what it means to be an Arab woman.

Dress, 2019. Digital print on canvas, 220 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
(Detail) Dress, 2019. Digital print on canvas, 220 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Such instances of overlap between some of the artworks on display thus highlight the degree to which the various contributing artists’ methods and concerns simultaneously resonate with and also distinguish themselves from one another. Whether it’s through the use of a common medium, technique, or subject, the exhibited artworks engage with one another by placing special emphasis on the things that bind them together, whilst still refusing to let that sense of unity define either the artist or their work entirely. Being and Belonging therefore distinguishes itself as a space in which the monolithic identities commonly ascribed to Islamic women are deconstructed and laid bare before our very eyes. Instead, the exhibition reiterates the fluid nature of these identities as a vast heterogeneous collective embodying the unique experiences of women from the Islamic world– as opposed to the more commonly enforced singular narrative lacking both nuance and validity in its attempt to simplify those experiences into a more easily palatable definition. This is especially relevant in the contemporary context of today’s globalised world, where individuality is emphasised as the crucial ingredient to all culturally charged encounters, but is still far too frequently withheld from women in the Islamic world. Being and Belonging doesn’t just account for these differences and variations in self-determined notions of what it means to be an Islamic woman artist— it celebrates them.

Alongside this celebration of the Islamic woman artist, the exhibition also maintains an inextricable connection to the current political happenings of the Islamic world at large, thus reasserting its own necessity as a platform to amplify the voices of the marginalised. The work of Shamsia Hassan, for instance, situated in the ‘Power’ subdivision of the exhibition, serves as a deeply moving commentary upon the plight of Afghan women following the Taliban’s recent rise to power. Hassan’s painting, Once Upon a Time / نبود یکی بود یکی (2023), depicts a solitary female figure caught floating between two conflicting realms: the past and the present, reality and fantasy, home and displacement. There is a simultaneous sense of both hope and grief that pervades Hassan’s work; coupled with a kind of primal yearning for all that has been lost.

The works of other artists, such as Nina Rastgar, also echo these concerns with loss and the politicisation of grief. The Iranian artist’s installation pieces serve as acutely sensitive visualisations of her experience with trauma on both a personal and a collective level. Rastgar’s work makes reference to the gender-based violence, sexual assault, and subjugation of queer communities that she personally witnessed while growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her work follows in the wake of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that recently took the world by storm in its mission to liberate Iranian women from the patriarchal tyranny of their totalitarian government. The incorporation of the artist’s personal sketchbooks within the installations further highlights the vulnerability with which each piece is rendered, and suggests a deeply moving reconciliation of the Personal alongside the Political. This is then further compounded by the small clay sculpture of a human ear, framed and positioned by the artist directly beneath the sketchbooks– Rastgar’s way of making sure that her viewers are still listening to what she has to say. It is a reminder of the responsibilities that come with the privilege of being a silent onlooker in the face of injustice, and a desperate plea to listen, but to not stop at just listening, to be more than just a passive spectator. As a whole, the entire exhibition also seems to reiterate this necessity of providing space for voices from the periphery to tell the world their stories, whilst also continuously reminding us that our work as observers does not simply end there.

Detail from Untitled, Shamsia Hassan, 2018. 37 x 29 cm, pen and acrylic on paper, bound in leather. Photo credits: ROM, Paul Eekhoff. Courtesy of ROM exhibition catalogue.
Untitled, Shamsia Hassan, 2018. 37 x 29 cm, pen and acrylic on paper, bound in leather, and framed copper clay sculpture. Photo credits: ROM, Paul Eekhoff. Courtesy of ROM exhibition catalogue.

Being and Belonging thus becomes, in a strange way, a sort of testament to its own inadequacy– not in terms of its quality as an exhibition, but rather in its status as a mechanism seeking to reshape the world’s current cultural landscape into a more diverse, inclusive, and representative space. The exhibition itself repeatedly compels its viewers to confront the fact that it is not enough to simply give the Islamic woman artist the space and opportunity to showcase her work, and it is not enough to pat oneself on the back for doing so. It is certainly a necessary step in the right direction, but it is by no means whatsoever the finish line. Each of the artworks on display, in their own unique way, go on to urge their audiences to reframe their conceptions of what it means to experience the world as an Islamic woman artist, and what it means for them to reclaim that identity. Whether it’s through Hayv Kahraman’s army of disembodied and mutated women prompting us to reflect upon the brutal othering of Brown female bodies; or Tazeen Qayyum’s cockroach ornamented airport chairs asking us to re-evaluate the non-White displaced traveler’s experience of migratory systems and racialised regulations; or Lubaina Himid’s colourful canvases and their unabashed celebrations of Blackness that question the Western canon’s demonisation of Black identity– the entire exhibition is consistently characterised by this enduring sense of unlearning, of dismantling, of reconfiguring our collective understanding of women from the Islamic world and their ways of being.

A Holding Pattern, 2013. Painted airport chairs and acrylic cutouts, 765 x 163 x 366 cm (installation), 183 x 71 x 81 cm (chairs). Courtesy of the artist. Photos: ROM, Paul Eekhoff.

But what makes this particular process of reconceptualisation so powerful is the level of autonomous agency with which it unfolds. Each individual artist featured in the exhibition occupies their own centralised role of designated authority in establishing what being a woman from the Islamic world means to them. There is a shift in power dynamics between the artist and their audience, whereby it is finally up to the woman of the Islamic world to reclaim her own narrative, to tell her own story, and to do so on her own terms. As viewers, we are invited to witness, but not to participate in, this process of reclamation. For once, it is the rest of the world’s turn to be the outsider, and it is only the Islamic woman artist herself who takes charge of her own experience. Being and Belonging, rather than simply endorsing the age-old stereotype of the powerless, voiceless Muslim woman, seeks instead to create a space in which the women of the Islamic world reclaim their power by being the only ones who get to define their own struggles.

As a whole, it can therefore be said that the exhibition is symbolic of the changing tides that are currently sweeping through the global contemporary art circuit, whilst also signaling to us the magnitude of all the further remaining changes still waiting to be made. There is anger, sadness, joy, grief, fear, suffering, celebration, and unbridled resilience to be found between the walls of the exhibition space. There is something new to learn from every piece on display, something new to resonate with. There are paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, and works that stretch across and beyond the boundaries of traditional media. There is also the inescapable sense that one is witnessing history unravel itself here, that the artworks being exhibited occupy space in both the past and the present, and that they are actively impacting our futures. But more than anything else, there is the acknowledgement that there’s no one singular way of being / belonging for the Islamic woman artist, no one singular truth or narrative to be spun. There is only the utterly human desire to be seen, heard, and witnessed on one’s own terms— to be allowed the space to simply just Be, and to then allow that act of Being to translate into its own particular form of belonging.

‘Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond’ was exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum from July 1st to November 19th 2023.

Cover Image: Stills from Policies of Belonging, 2022. Five-channel video with 3D-printed timers, 42:43 mins. Courtesy of the artist.

Endnotes

  1. Bocart, Fabian, et al. “Glass Ceilings in the Art Market.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3079017.
  2. Topaz, Chad M., et al. “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums.” PLOS ONE, edited by Christopher M. Danforth, vol. 14, no. 3, Mar. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212852 .
  3. Ibid.
  4. Essen, Elia. “Being and Belonging Opens at the Royal Museum of Ontario.” NUVO, 7 July 2023, nuvomagazine.com/daily-edit/being-and-belonging-opens-at-the-royal-museum-of-ontario.
  5. Suleman, Fahmida, editor. Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond. Royal Ontario Museum, 2023.

Shahrez Chauhan is a student and independent researcher who divides his time between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. He is currently completing his undergraduate degree in History of Art and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and likes to spend his free time reading, writing, and thinking about art.

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