From an early age it is understood that in the Middle East and North Africa the predominant system of authority is a masculine one. With the Arabic word ‘Rabb’ meaning both ‘God’ and the ‘head of the family’, the stereotype of the passive, voiceless Arab woman under the thumb of her father or husband is formed from cultural and religious traditions within the typical Arab family structure and that general understanding of gender hierarchy is in turn mimicked and repeated in wider society. This view of Arab women as a homogenous, anonymous grouping has however, lead to an increase in resistance, a creative desire amongst Arab female artists to react to passé notions of Arab womanhood and show alternative perspectives. Dismantling notions of a fixed cultural and social identity, exhibitions like Textural Threads at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, part of the 2016 Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) festival create spaces of discourse for women to express their own contemporary subjectives.
Despite this, Textural Threads is not simply an exhibition of artists linked merely by gender; curator Najlaa Al-Ageli brings together five artists whose work forms a dialogue between their Arab heritages in relation to Western and European culture. Each of the artists considers the effects of the meeting of these two cultures. Whether it is through historical colonialism of North Africa by European countries or contemporary experiences of exile from the Middle East to Europe as a consequence of current wars in the region, cultural duality is the connecting theme.
Lost by Libyan art student Tawka Barnosa is a black and white photograph of a bronze statue designed by Angiolo Vannetti during the Italian colonisation of Libya. The sculpture depicts Italy as a nude female figure reaching out and giving life to a gazelle which represents Tripoli. The artist as written in calligraphy the word ‘lost’ in Arabic over the image to signify the recent destruction of the monument during the recent political upheaval and attempts by religious extremists to remove figurative art prohibited by Islam and deny Libya’s colonial past. By employing calligraphy; an art form accepted by Islamic tradition, Barnosa simultaneously celebrates Arab culture and mourns the erasing of Libya’s unique heritage and cultural history. In his preface to Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, Dr Anwar Gargash explains that “Arabic has transcended borders to become the international symbol of its people. As such, it is a potent tool for artists looking to transmit their messages about the issues, themes ad trends that pervade the modern Arab world today.”
Colonialism and the paradox of Eastern and Western culture is a also the theme featured heavily in the work of Hania Zaazoua. The title Young Ladies of Icosium for example, is a reference to Picasso’s Women of Algiers, highlighting an ancient history of the artist’s native city which predates French colonial rule. The striking series of digital, photomontage like prints on silk are framed in embroidery hoops and although the pieces are not actual embroideries they are significant to Algeria’s colonial past. In the nineteenth century, French woman Eugénie Luce opened a school in Algiers which focused on teaching traditional Maghrebi handicrafts such as embroidery and weaving. In Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930, Roger Benjamin describes this venture as ‘proto-feminist’ and notes Luce’s intention to “lift up the Muslim woman, to draw her from her inaction, to give her a nobler and more useful role in the family.” Zaazoua elevates the applied and decorative arts which have historically been thought of as feminine and inferior by referring to the medium in her own work. In the style of Fornasetti, she repeats and reworks a black and white image of the same female figure rising up through brightly coloured cartographic motifs and fragments of Islamic geometric art. She creates a timeless Algerian heroine, empowered and resilient in spite of and as a result of history and circumstance.
Both Barnosa and Zaazoua seem to be ambivalent in their commentary of colonial history. Neither artist presents an exclusively negative or positive view; instead they consider they comment on the modern experience of being on both sides of two cultures. Similarly, Dima Nashawi’s work visualises the coming together of cultures, but in this context, from the perspective of displacement. Despite finding safety and freedom in London as part of the recent Syrian diaspora, Nashawi’s drawings illustrate a longing to return to her homeland. Her intricately detailed and beautifully fluid lines are used to whimsically reimagine real stories. Damascus in my Head is a highly stylised self-portrait where the figure is unable to concentrate on reading her book. Preoccupied with thoughts of her home, her long hair wraps and coils around Damascene apartment buildings and stray strands of hair emanate like smoke from the city. One cannot help but think of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani whose verses whilst living in Europe often spoke of an idealised city he wished to go back to.
“What are you doing to me Damascus?
How have you changed my culture?”
With the desire to counteract mainstream media coverage of the Arab world which normally focuses on the story of men in the region and the popularised aggressive and conflicted struggle between East and West, Textural Threads undoes the binaries of gender and race, presenting a constant transition of Arab women adapting and creating a fluid cultural identity that is their own.