Veil, voice and vision

Images of the virginal Disney princess Belle are juxtaposed with bold black outlines of a woman, eyes closed as she receives oral sex. This massive canvas first comes across to the viewer as a mix of grey paint and embroidery thread lines, however, upon further inspection, layers of images and meaning become visible. Mirror images of Belle mid-curtsey sandwich images of eroticized women created out of green and red embroidery thread. Created in 2004 by Ghada Amer, “And The Beast” is just one of her series of embroidery paintings that combine pornographic images of women with illustrations of princesses. Her work is concerned with the celebration of female sexuality and pleasure and through these works she challenges the misogynistic ideas that Cindy Lauper criticized, “Every woman’s a Madonna every woman’s a whore, you can try to reduce me but I am so much more.”

This example of contemporary feminist art is not an anomaly. Contemporary artists, especially those from non-Western countries, use their artwork as a means of challenging traditional gender roles of women. Amer was born in Egypt and, like Iranian artists Shirin Neshat and Ghazel, is labeled as an “ethnic other” according to Western stereotypes. These women use their art to deconstruct these stereotypes. They also use their art to construct a new image for women, which challenges the submissive roles that women occupy in their culture.

Just over 20 years ago Linda Nochlin, a leader in feminist theory asked, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Throughout the history of art, women were rendered as passive objects for the assumed male gaze. “Greatness” therefore, in terms of artistic achievement, was reserved exclusively for men. Feminist artists, historians and theorists have challenged the repression of women in the arts, revisiting history and making a place for the women artists who otherwise would be written out of history books.

Waves of feminist art appeared, its forerunners using all media, even their bodies, as a means of reclaiming art practices and art spaces. The 1980s saw a backlash against feminism, as Susan Faludi wrote in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. However, even through this backlash in the 1980s and through the 1990s women, and especially women of visible minorities, fought back. Women artists from visible minorities are still using their art as a weapon against gendered stereotypes and boundaries.

In a culture where women are hidden and the public display of the female body is restricted, the woman’s body has a complex reading, as seen in Iran. Women were forcefully unveiled in 1936 as a progressive act but they were forcibly “re-veiled” in 1983 following the Iranian revolution as part of the reconstruction of an Islamic/Iranian identity. To an Iranian, the chador symbolizes modesty, while to a Westerner the black-cloaked figure represents an entirely different construction. Stereotypes perpetuated by the media show the “veiled woman” in terms of subjugation, fatalism, obedience, social marginalization, heroism and mercilessness all in a single female figure.

Prompted by these stereotypes the Iranian artist Ghazel uses her film and video art to deconstruct and reconstruct what it means to be a veiled woman. In her “Me” series of black and white films, she films herself wearing her black chador doing everyday activities, including sports and chores. These black and white images are juxtaposed with text. She challenges stereotypes represented in the media of a passive woman by placing her lens on herself doing every day things like exercise, to her fantasies of becoming a Botticelli Venus, or a Hell’s Angel.

In one film still, Ghazel sits balanced and comfortable on a motorcycle despite the long black cloak she wears. The text beneath her reads, “Being ‘cool’ was showing-off with your two-wheels when we were teenagers.” Through this image, she challenges prior conceptions of Iranian women; the veil does not render her passive. She also crosses traditional gender boundaries in Iranian culture. Women in Iran are not allowed to drive motorbikes. She shows how awkward it is to straddle the motorbike in her long black cloak yet she appears comfortable, staring down the viewer that would otherwise render the image of the “veiled woman” as passive.

Shirin Neshat, another contemporary Iranian video artist, also uses her work to challenge traditional gender roles and boundaries for Iranian women. For example, in her 1998 video, “Turbulent,” Neshat contrasts the artistic realities for women and men in Iran in this two-screen black and white video instillation. One screen shows a man standing on stage facing a theatre with a male audience. He turns his back to the audience and begins to perform. Whether he chooses to face the audience or not, his performance is accepted. He has a cultural privilege. When he finishes singing he turns to face the audience and receive their praise, then turns his back to the audience once more as the second screen comes to life. A woman wearing a chador begins to passionately sing, facing an auditorium of empty seats. Complying with the enforced gendered boundaries for women in her culture, she cannot dance, show the shape of her body or uncover her head. Most significantly, she is prohibited from singing in public. Neshat’s video is an emotionally charged and powerful musical metaphor, which illustrates the complexities of gender roles in Iran, where one genders’ art is preferred and another’s is prohibited.

As Andrea Dworkin has written, “Feminist art is not some tiny creek running off the great river of real art. It is not some crack in an otherwise flawless stone. It is, quite spectacularly I think, art which is not based on the subjugation of one half of the species. It is art, which will take the great human themes — love, death, heroism, suffering, history itself — and render them fully human. It may also, though perhaps our imaginations are so mutilated now that we are incapable even of the ambition, introduce a new theme, one as great and as rich as those others —should we call it joy?”