Precarious Symbolism: When the Political Sphere Overshadows Art History

From Art Journal 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013)

Monira Al Qadiri, still from Wa Waila
(Oh Torment), 2008
, film, 10 min. 4 sec. (artwork © Monira Al Qadiri)

The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society. Exhibitions organized by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, August 13–September 9, 2012; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, August 18, 2012–January 13, 2013; Bernstein Gallery at Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, August 27–October 19, 2012; Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries, Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers University, August 29–December 17, 2012; Paul Robeson Gallery, Arts Council of Princeton, October 4–November 21, 2012

Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, eds. The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Institute for Women and Art, 2012. 256 pp., 180 color ills. $45

As the methodical beat of a handheld drum begins to pound, a bearded, turbaned figure is shown lying on a bare floor. Overcome by emotional agony, he moves as though waking from a trance. A mane of dark hair frames his painted face as the camera zooms in and his melodic eulogy to lost love commences. This opening scene of Monira Al Qadiri’s short film Wa Waila (Oh Torment) (2008) immediately establishes the tone of a slapstick music video. Backed by a band of cross-dressing men who are reduced to black silhouettes, Al Qadiri assumes the role of the film’s male protagonist. These spirit-muses, or temptresses, appear to further torment the central character, as she takes contemporary political clichés and Orientalist motifs to the point of absurdity. Filled with localisms, her choreographed short invokes the melodrama of Arab television serials, which are fraught with ascribed gender roles.

The parodic visuals of Wa Waila often opt for a low-budget feel, as when props drop from the sky on strings or backup dancers sway with the movement of painted fish cutouts. Its soundtrack maintains a tortuously slow pace as superfluous scenes unfold. At certain intervals, if only for a split second during close-ups, the artist comes out of character. With the raise of an eyebrow, a slight smile, or an exact stare, she playfully clues in viewers to the ironies of her performance.

The efficacy of Al Qadiri’s work rests in her ability to extend its feminist critique beyond a supposed East-West divide—a necessary form of engagement when attempting to supersede today’s usual discussions of “Islamic” societies. Together with the artist’s more recent The Tragedy of Self (2009, 2012), a series of gender-bending self-portraits that update the gold-leafed imagery of Byzantine icons, Wa Waila was among a number of superbly nuanced works in the group show The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society.

In the preface to the exhibition’s accompanying publication, the curators Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin describe the multivenue event and its related programming as part of a larger project on “global feminism” for the Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art (IWA), of which they are the founding directors. As art historians who have also been integral to The Feminist Art Project (TFAP), their goal is to provide greater availability to art created by women worldwide, including much-needed access to research materials. The Fertile Crescent’s catalogue benefits from this concentration, offering hefty sections on each of its featured artists with numerous reproductions, extensive bibliographies, partial biographies, and artist statements.

Brodsky and Olin’s curatorial essay, “Unavailable Intersections,” reveals the original premise of the Fertile Crescent exhibition, which was to be centered on women artists who reflect the familiar themes of feminist art, namely the exploration of gender and sexuality, or rather how gender and sexuality are fashioned as social constructs, depending on context. The title of their project is intended as a lighthearted jab at both the “essentialist concept of women” (2) and an outdated understanding of the Middle East born from the early establishment of Western archaeology alongside Euro-American colonial and imperial endeavors in the region. Whether viewers understood the irony of the title has yet to be determined—it was nevertheless fitting, given the inclusion of works like Wa Waila.

As their research expanded “largely by examining printed catalogues and resources available on the Internet,” other themes began to emerge, revealing “a broad scope of artistic approaches and perspectives” (3). In the end, the curators determined “the exhibition should focus on illustrating the heterogeneity of countries, cultures, and individualities of each artist” (3). The result acknowledged two distinct approaches: artists who deal specifically with notions of gender and sexuality, and those who engage far-reaching topics such as migration, violent conflict, and political repression. For many artists in the exhibition, these dual tracks converge, as they move effortlessly from the terms of a feminist critique to broader issues.

At the entrance to the Princeton University Art Museum, one of five art spaces in central New Jersey that were enlisted to cohost The Fertile Crescent due to its robust lineup, these converging tracks appeared in an introductory wall text. While credited with eschewing “both national and religious categories,” the featured art was simultaneously positioned as examining “the complex social, theological, and historical issues that have shaped, and continue to shape, the state of Middle Eastern women.” The wall text introduced visitors to the term “precarity,” a concept addressed at length in “Art, Precarity, Biopolitics,” the contribution to the catalogue by Princeton University Art Museum curator Kelly Baum. For Baum, precariousness is a “universal” state, as “people the world over grapple with social, political, environmental, and economic uncertainty” (38). The wall text, however, presented it as yet another (daily) experience facing women artists of Middle Eastern origins specifically, “whose gender, religion, and ethnicity compound the prejudices to which they are exposed.”

Baum’s “Art, Precarity, Biopolitics” delineates the interpretive parameters of understanding precarity in relation to Middle Eastern women artists as an effort to “expand the meaning of art by women and non-whites” (39). Citing “the institutionalization of misogyny and the ubiquity of conflict, ethnophobia, American imperialism, and state-sponsored oppression,” she proposes that precarity as a lens through which to consider the artists of The Fertile Crescent does not supplant but does “attenuate gender and regional identity” (38). In a similar way, Brodsky and Olin contend in “Unavailable Intersections” that art underscoring the complexities of contemporary representations (and uses) of veiling in “Islamic” societies can also be viewed as critiquing “Western hegemony and Orientalism” (4) while contributing to the concomitant theme of transcending “current politics to comment on issues that are global as well as regional and individual” (13). Although images of the veil abounded in the Fertile Crescent exhibitions, the artists Ayana Friedman and Nil Yalter provided welcome counterpoints to the assumption that contemporary iterations of Islam are the sole protagonists of “women’s dress in relation to the construction of gender” (7).

Beyond deliberations on gender politics, a concern with widespread manifestations of power and their corporeal impact was given currency by artists such as Mona Hatoum, whose delicate yet visually jarring use of unconventional materials is intentionally destabilizing. Hatoum’s incorporation of human hair in the pair of etchings Hair and There (2004), and abaca fiber and cotton in Projection (2006), a receding map of the world in which the traditional orientation of the United States and Europe at the center is altered, offered scaled-down demonstrations of the groundbreaking formalism that has come to define her illustrious career. The appropriating of alternative materials was also exemplified in artworks that draw on ecology and urbanism to scrutinize frequently gendered socioscapes. Ariane Littman’s performances and public interventions Mehika/Erasure (2006) and The Olive Tree (2011), which were exhibited as video recordings, imparted similarly persuasive examples of the rethinking of materiality in provocative investigations of militarized conflicts, specifically within the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its ongoing reconfiguring and usurping of domestic structures, resources, and land. The curators aptly describe the “unfixed identities and fluctuating social contexts” of the Fertile Crescent artists as they stress their “critically insightful explorations into the complexities of the intersections of contemporary culture, history, gender, and power” (3).

A contribution to the catalogue by the historian and women’s studies scholar Margot Badran elaborates on the meeting of gender and politics that has been paramount to recent popular uprisings in the Arab world, namely in the significant participation of women in mass demonstrations and prerevolutionary activism, which dispels the trite Orientalist myth of the Arab woman as a docile subject. In “The Art of Revolution in Egypt: Brushes with Women,” Badran examines the responses of several prominent artists to the shifting status of women within the Egyptian political arena by addressing works created before and after January 2011, the time of the “youth revolution.” Although none of the artists highlighted in the essay were included in the Fertile Crescent exhibition, the reader can easily assume the reasoning for commissioning Badran’s survey, given that the “Arab Spring” is cited as “the critical event for this era” (2) in “Unavailable Inter-sections.” The author begins with a brief history of pioneering female artists from the modern period with a special focus on Gazbia Sirry and the late Inji Aflatun, who “were born in the aftermath of the 1919 revolution, when first-wave feminism was making its public debut, and who became practicing artists in the middle of the century” (14). Badran notes the combination of art and activism that characterized the many years of their respective practices. Aflatun is especially lauded for merging “the roles of artist, leftist activist, and feminist, connecting a staunch anti-imperialist politics with an unwavering feminist politics” (14).

The 1970s in Egypt are singled out as “a moment of hope and, so it was thought, possibility” (16) with the succession of Anwar Sadat to the presidency following the death of the pan-Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Badran’s description of the Nasser “regime” after the 1956 revolution reveals a certain political leaning, as she argues that “independent voices” were finally “allowed public expression” (16) with the entrance of Sadat, then concedes that democratic movements and activism, particularly the second-wave feminist leadership of the physician and writer Nawal Al-Saadawi, were met with punishing suppression. Moving between slight advances and mammoth setbacks over the next forty years that coincided with the “opening of the country to the West and reorientation away from socialism to capitalism” (17) under Sadat, then more rapidly through Hosni Mubarak’s administration, the author outlines “the corruption, arrogance, and oppression of citizens by the powerful state, with its multiple layers of security” (17). Here, within Badran’s essay, is one of the few times in The Fertile Crescent catalogue that the reader is given the inner workings of a precarious state that North African and West Asian women face. In her closing paragraphs, she underlines how today’s artists must navigate local efforts to maintain years of politically institutionalized patriarchy and the overtly gendered tactics of entrenched military forces that are dispatched to beleaguer critical public spaces.

The “art of revolution” that is highlighted in Badran’s overview ranges in aesthetic quality; much recent foreign interest has ignored local art standards in favor of selected content and has been met with wide criticism from regional curators and scholars.1 Fortunately, Badran includes the mixed-media art of Huda Lutfi, who is admired for stellar visuals, equally astute content, and her ability to join concept and form with sound insights into Egypt’s fluctuating political existence. The author characterizes Egyptian art of the present moment as “scrolling” between the present and the past “in a slippery, fluid temporal and spatial continuum” (20), and perhaps it is best to agree that, if anything, these artistic outpourings point to a sense of release and “endurance,” whether by trained artists or those simply moved to create, indicating a necessary transition to whatever is to come.

The history of precarity in the Middle East is primarily recounted in “Art, Precarity, Biopolitics” as it pertains to the advent of Orientalism and imperialism, which are forever linked—the former being an operative discourse that worked in tandem with the many tentacles of the latter. Beginning with the founding narratives of the Fertile Crescent in archaeology, Baum applies Edward Said’s seminal deductions on a multidisciplinary campaign in Western thought that served to augment political domination of the vast region. She pays particular attention to the findings of the American scholar James Henry Breasted who, although credited for bringing the importance of the region’s ancient cultures to the fore of early civilizations, was instrumental in strengthening the obdurate supremacist ideology of Orientalism and its labeling of North Africa and West Asia as stagnant lesser regions lacking in “contemporaneity” (42).

After a lengthy but necessary detour into the legacy of Orientalism, Baum discusses the work of several artists who deal with overtly political subjects. For readers and viewers alike, this historical perspective is crucial to situating a number of the exhibition’s videos, photographs, sculptures, and paintings, which evince a hyper-awareness of “current manifestations of Orientalism and imperialism—that is, to American militarism and Islamophobia” (42). Baum sheds light on the personal narratives referenced in the charged images of Shirin Neshat, Parastou Forouhar, and Hayv Kahraman, and also delves heavily into aesthetics, allowing formalism to stand on equal footing with the political content of each work—an approach that is absent from the publication’s previous entries. “Art, Precarity, Biopolitics” is intentionally self-reflective, as the author carefully avoids establishing gender in the Middle East as the exclusive site of repression. The artists in diaspora whose work she examines can be divided between two thematic schema: those who address the complex (and nonlinear) manifestations of precarity in their countries of origins, and those who have found a similarly discouraging state of affairs abroad that is no less amplified by and linked to “the increasing militarization of human relations in the twenty-first century” (46).

It is in the concluding essay, Gilane Tawadros’s “Slipping Away (or Uncompliant Cartographies),” that the reader is given the clearest description of how American viewers (and curators) might opt out of “singular, monotonous narratives that surround the Middle East, focused on conflict, female oppression, Islamic extremism, civil war, and most recently, protest and revolution” (52). What she proposes is an open-ended way of looking, mirroring the “nuanced, varied, and changing gradations of a lived geography, as distinct from its mediated, uniform representation” (52) that can be found in the work of Hatoum—a spatiality that is boldly insisted on by the majority of the Fertile Crescent artists.

Tawadros writes as a London-based cultural practitioner whose projects include a range of exhibitions in Europe. In 2003 she joined the artists Jananne Al-Ani (who is featured in The Fertile Crescent) and Zineb Sedira, and the curator David A. Bailey in realizing the exhibition Veil and its associated publication, which took a radical new approach to exploring images of veiling and the persistence of Orientalist concepts by seeking to dislodge the common signifiers of resolute representations. For Tawadros and her cocurators, the exhibition’s emphasis on the visual was a move to negate attempts to situate the gendered motif of the veil “as a metonym for political Islam, female oppression, or as symptomatic of non-Western religious traditions”(54). By creating a space in which representation transcended “the figurative, the literal, and the present moment” (55) and keeping with Stuart Hall’s advocacy of a “resistant reminder,” this predecessor to The Fertile Crescent was able to circumvent the polemically informed discourses that remain talking points in efforts to justify American military campaigns in West, Central, and South Asia, and lately North Africa.

“Slipping Away (or Uncompliant Cartographies)” raises several questions about the format of The Fertile Crescent. When explorations of gender and sexuality are presented to audiences as responses to embroiled oppositions—imperialism and Orientalism on the one hand, and religious extremism and political repression on the other—interpretive possibilities are narrowed, and in their place, Tawadros cautions, emerges the obstinate belief that “certain cultures are both ‘knowable’ and ‘representable’ in a literal sense” (54).

Since September 11, 2001, there has been an increase in the number of exhibitions of “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic” art in the United States. With this predilection has come an expanding pool of respondent critiques that expose the many pitfalls of organizing such regionally or culturally concentrated events while questioning the fact that women artists who summon gender and Islam receive the most exposure in Western cultural spheres. In 2002 the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod identified a brand of cultural framing in the United States that draws heavily on “female symbols” and makes the plight of women in the “Islamic” world a rallying cry for allied campaigns of “a new Middle East.” A central query of Abu-Lughod’s study is why knowledge of Middle Eastern culture, specifically as it pertains to the social appearance of religion and definitions of gender, tends to override more urgent political narratives that might aid in understanding the strategic role of the United States in endorsing or propping
up repressive regimes or factions.2

In stressing the importance of The Fertile Crescent, Brodsky and Olin discount cultural practitioners who have vocalized concerns about the use of “female symbols” as curatorial starting points. The curators’ insistence on the urgent need to address the “social and theological restrictions” (12) that are placed on Muslim and Middle Eastern women should recall the controversial statement of Glen Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, that the artists included in MoMA’s Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking benefited from living in the United States and Europe rather than under the restrictions of their homelands.3

One unfortunate consequence of relying on such reductive signifiers is that they lead curators to overlook artists’ examinations of political conditions that should otherwise speak directly to American viewers. A broader focus might help audiences view the site-specific installation The Reality Show (2012) by Efrat Kedem differently. The installation consisted of strategically placed surveillance cameras in public spaces throughout Princeton. With several of the exhibition’s gallery spaces transformed into related control rooms where a live feed was broadcast back to visitors, the artist created an interactive performance that brilliantly blurred the lines between normalized voyeurism in American popular culture and an increasingly militarized state where surveillance is central to a trumped-up climate of fear through which the stripping-away of civil liberties continues to be justified in the name of national security. Kedem, although born in Jerusalem, lives and works in the United States, yet The Reality Show is represented in The Fertile Crescent as pertaining to an Israeli context, which is then transferred to the “placid” New Jersey college town (11).

The most glaring missed opportunity, however, comes in the form of scholarship (or rather a lack there of) despite the catalogue’s heft. Little information is provided on the actual nature of regional art scenes, how from Cairo to Tehran women have been indispensable to the advancement of art movements, schools, trends, and formal experimentation while frequently working to secure institutional support and elevating critical debates on the roles of artists, curators, critics, and historians. How such recognized figures as Hatoum, Ghada Amer, and Yalter have contributed to the progression of international art, specifically as it pertains to American and European trajectories, was also scantly explored. By using a historical perspective, the exhibition could have afforded a level of seriousness to its emerging artists with an examination of the formal and conceptual shifts that can be found in their varied works.

The whimsically transgressive photographs and videos of the sisters Monira and Fatima Al Qadiri, who are the daughters of the seminal Kuwaiti painter Thuraya Al Baqsami, are but a few of the potential points of departure that would have better situated the exhibition and its publication. Al Baqsami produced Wa Waila, while Fatima, a rising musician and composer, realized its musical direction. The paper fish cutouts in Monira’s short film recall the celebrated symbols of Al Baqsami’s color-saturated canvases, which candidly layer intricate narratives against the sensations and signifiers of the diverse locales where Al Baqsami has lived since beginning her artistic career in the 1960s. Fatima’s Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM) (2012), a collaborative video with fellow New York–based artist Khalid Al Gharaballi, satirizes the gendered spaces of the Kuwaiti middle class as an extension of “Gulf Futurism,” an ambitious theoretical project that she has formulated with the Qatari writer Sophia Al Maria in order to pinpoint the cultural manifestations of the Arab Gulf states’ accelerated modernization.

As The Fertile Crescent sought to institute a foundation for the consideration of Middle Eastern women artists within American academia, it would have been worthwhile for the project to probe a number of these generational connections and their overlapping contexts, regional and international, creative and otherwise. In 1994 Al Baqsami was featured in Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, a group show of women from North Africa and West Asia working in painting, sculpture, photography, and installation that was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. A committee of independent curators, scholars, and participating artists based in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East organized the exhibition, which remains a benchmark for contemporary Arab art. The key to its lasting impact is its eponymous publication, which places a strong focus on art history, not only in its detailed accounts of modern and contemporary art in the Maghreb, the Levant, and the Gulf, but also in its identification of artists who had long been active in the United States. Madiha Omar, for example—the first known Arab artist to incorporate calligraphy in modern painting—participated in solo and group shows at the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute in the late 1940s and was among a number of individuals whose importance was first articulated through this methodical rendering. By discussing their work in aesthetic terms in relation to global developments, Forces of Change lucidly highlighted the ways in which its artists grappled with politics, migration, exile, war, gender, history, nature, family, faith, love, and yes, even stereotypes.

Maymanah Farhat is a New York–based art historian who has written widely on modern and contemporary art of the Arab world and its diaspora. From 2006 until 2009, she was the West Asia editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine’s annual Almanac. She is currently coeditor of the culture page of Jadaliyya.

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Art Journal.

  1. See Kirsten Scheid’s “On Arabs and the Art Awakening: Warnings from a Narcoleptic Population,” Jadaliyya, August 31, 2012, at, as of December 31, 2012.
  2. Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (September 2002).
  3. See Maymanah Farhat, “Contemporary ‘Islamic’ Art in Context,” Counterpunch, March 25, 2006, at, as of December 31, 2012.