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Exploring the Muslim veil in Western art

Mona el Tahawy caused quite an uproar with her article on misogyny in the Middle East. One of the most unsettling things about the article was a series of photos depicting what appeared to be a nude model with black body paint representing a niquab.

One of my co-authors on this democrati.net wrote a critique of Mona’s article and I helped him choose a photo. During my search I came across a number of very strong works of art that explore the veil from very different perspectives.

Anita Kunz’ witty “Girls Will Be Girls”

Anita Kunz’ witty “Girls Will Be Girls” explores the irony of veiling practices across different cultures by depicting a Roman Catholic nun sitting beside a Muslim woman in a niqab, and a half-naked woman waiting for a subway. The painting was later featured on the cover of the New Yorker magazine.

French artist Gerard Rancinan takes Eugene Delacroix’ 1831 painting “Liberty Leading the People” and controversially swaps the semi-clad Liberty for a woman in a black niqab. The setup is fascinating and begs various interpretations especially within the context of the burqa ban in France. Are liberty and freedom of expression restricted to a single culture and who decides? On the other hand, is extreme expression of personal freedom self-destructive and collectively apocalyptic?

Brenda Oelbaum is an American Jew and explores the veil in the context of post 9/11 Islamophobia. In her painting “One of These Things is Not Like the Other: Elizabeth Smart” she juxtaposes women of Muslim faith with Elizabeth Smart hostage, hidden by her kidnappers in a makeshift burka. She explains: “For a Muslim woman it may be choice, religious belief, empowerment, or put upon her by her by her family or her husband. But in the situation regarding Elizabeth Smart, she was a hostage, hidden, weak.”

Helen Zughaib portrays the paradoxes of veiling and Orientalism in her “Secrets Under the ’Abaya” series. By re-dressing familiar paintings from modern artists like Mondrian and Picasso. In “’Abaya Lichtenstein,” she crisply summarizes the all-pervading East vs. West dilemma, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations, in a thought balloon: “I am not who you think I am.”



About T. Fouad, MD

Blogging on Egypt, Middle East Politics. Economics. Oncology. Egyptian Liberal, Doctor. كتابة عن مصر والشرق الأوسط, سياسة واقتصاد, طبيب مصري ليبرالي. تابعوني على تويتر @FouadMD


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