Taking the Veil to the White Cube: Representations of Femininity and Sexuality in Contemporary Middle Eastern Art

By Elizabeth Derderian
Submitted to Session P2527 (Spaces of Female Sexuality, 2010 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Cultural Studies; Gender/Women's Studies; Identity/Representation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Art is a powerful medium for expression and is one of many ways in which ideas travel in today's globalizing world. Ideas can be challenged or supported through representation and art. Equally critical is the understanding of how art markets and auctions, as well as exhibitions by private galleries or public museums, constitute a particular politics and economics of representation.
This paper examines representations of femininity and sexuality as portrayed in contemporary art from the Middle East. Many Middle Eastern artists inevitably confront loaded imagery of the veil in portraying women, femininity, and sexuality, and thus dissecting the veil is an integral and inevitable component of any discussion on femininity and sexuality. The exhibitions discussed are Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art and Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East. Both exhibitions refer to and deal with the veil: the former attempts to de-Orientalize the veil and subvert accepted understandings of Middle Eastern feminine sexuality in a show at a charitable library and arts foundation, while the latter plays on the use of the word veil to sensationalize and sell the art to a presumably consuming audience within the context of a private commercial gallery.
These exhibitions feature the works of many artists, including Zineb Sedira, Jananne Al Ani, and Shadi Ghadirian, whose works form the core of detailed visual analysis. Drawing on the scholarship of Joseph Massad, Reina Lewis, and Sarah Graham Brown, this paper discusses the differing ways these contemporary artists and exhibitions are portraying sexuality and femininity. To what extent are these artists bound to assumptions of how femininity and sexuality should be represented, and how do they defy or meet these expectationsn How do the pressure and economics of the international art market influence the works and popularity of these artists and exhibitionsn Additionally, multiple interpretations of the works and exhibitions are presented, with the understanding that viewers from different positionalities will bring varying analytical frameworks to their experiences of the works. These works of art have the power to perpetuate or destroy accepted conceptions as well as offer fertile ground for new ideas to circulate. The image remains a powerful influence on the public imagination and ideas about the Middle East.