Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Muslim Women’s Art

By Naima Hachad
Submitted to Session P3606 (Acts of Women, 2013 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Islamic World;
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In their photographs, Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi and Iranian American Shirin Neshat artists re-imagine the female body of Arab and Muslim women in light of the violence stemming from ideological clashes between the West and the Islamic world. Recuperating the enduring Western obsession with the veil and its overrepresentation in contemporary media, art, and politics, Essaydi and Neshat draw attention to long lasting practices of defacement of Arab and Muslim women. The two artists restage images of the harem and the odalisque perpetuated by Orientalist painters while injecting them with alternative cultural motifs such as actual veils, Arabic calligraphy, and henna for example. In so doing, they violate the Western canon and re-contextualize the representation of Muslim and Arab women to interrupt the eroticizing gaze and force the viewer out of his/her conventional expectations. Some of their photographs such as Converging Territories # 21 (Essaydi) or I Am the Secret (Shirin), in which the women’s bodies and faces are excessively covered with layers of fabric and calligraphy, also redeploy the veil to reproduce narratives of confinement and silence as part of the realities faced by Arab and Muslim women. This aspect caused some critics to describe Essaydi and Neshat's works as neo-orientalist and therefore neo-colonial. However, even though their works are largely directed to a Western audience, the compositions of their photographs, the imposition of the Muslim female body in the public space, the proximity between the sacred and the profane, and the introduction of weapons and Jihadist imagery in their series Bullets and Women of Allah are resolutely provocative and aim to disintegrate myths and stereotypes both in the West and the Islamic world. Essaydi and Shirin thus use ambiguity to emphasize enduring cross-cultural dialogues that have shaped perceptions of the self and the other in both cultural spaces. They also invest sites of conflict and confusion to rethink the place of violence in transnational understandings and discourses.