01.02.2021 - 23.03.2021
In recent years, the work of women artists has received the long-overdue attention it deserves. However, this exposure may result in a univocal apprehension and display of the works by such individuals. In other words, emphasis on women artists on the premise of their identity as ‘women’ may lead to a homogenous understanding of women artists and their practice. Although the desire to repair the uneven volume of representation of women in the arts is a true necessity, which is still experiencing major shortcomings, could the category ‘woman’ really be sufficient to place the works of such diverse artists under one roof?
Middle Eastern artists regardless of their gender often experience similar homogenic, stereotypical perception of their practice; an exhibition of Middle Eastern art in a Western context is expected to include specific aesthetics, techniques and display a specific array of narratives. The tropes of what is a ‘Middle Eastern experience’ presume individuals share histories and faiths, face similar struggles, and hold the same opinions and desires because they born in the same place. Identity, then, may it be based on gender or place of origin, often plays an important role in the justification of the selection of artists or works of art in exhibitions, even if these categories or their subtexts are far from the manner in which the artists would have described their own practice.
The double bind of patriarchal Western gaze places Middle Eastern women artists in two categories entrenched with specific subtext and expectations that do not necessarily coincide with their perception of self, or the manner in which they view their gender or origin. Present Imperfect seeks to explore the inherent flaws in these attempts to articulate categories of identity in contemporary society, focusing on the case study of the category ‘women’.
The exhibition features five artists who provide various perspectives on present-day womanhood and the role it plays in their formulation of a sense of ‘self’. Womanhood is configured through a series of enquiries posed by each of the artists into their histories, bodies, fears, and hopes. This is positioned alongside an interrogation of locality: the artists comment on their sense of belonging through an exploration that is saturated with conflicting desires of preservation and reformation; they draw upon personal, communal, and societal histories while reconsidering and reimagining their disposition within these spaces. A close examination will suggest that their practices highlight different aspects of women’s experiences as well as the concept of ‘locality’. Some artists have emphasized their cultural background, challenging the traditional role of women, while others preferred a more personal introspection of their bodies and desires, questioning where they “belong” beyond the geo-political domain.
Traditional women’s work is the starting point of Jafra Abu Zoulouf’s oeuvre. The Palestinian artist deals extensively with her identity as an Arab woman living in Israel, attempting to reflect upon the unique struggle of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenships. In Present Imperfect, Abu Zoulouf exhibits two performative video works that document her collecting, cleaning, sorting, and rearranging debris of houses in her neighborhood of Wadi Salib, Haifa, owned by Palestinian families prior to 1948. In these videos, the artist examines her identity as a woman alongside, and in relation to her identity as a Palestinian. Her pseudo-archaeological act re-thinks the history of her place of residence through an array of traditional tasks, which she employs to interrogate her position as a Palestinian woman within this space. The action seems to benefit the Palestinian struggle – the act of conservation imposes tactile qualities upon the past and emphasizes the aftermath of destruction as an act against erasure. However, Abu Zoulouf also questions the position of women within the society in which she was raised. Instead of following her aunt’s path, featured in the video Talqit picking common Palestinian herbs such as Zaatar and Akoub, Abu Zoulouf is reorienting the traditionally ‘feminine‘ act to include other endeavors: construction, destruction and resistance, often associated with the male gender. Placing her own body in front of the camera, Abu Zoulouf redirects the narrative to consider a specific, women’s experience of loss and uncertainty.
The implications of tradition for women in the Middle East are also central to the work of Azita Moradkhani. Like Abu Zoulouf, Moradkhani attempts to dismantle the association of womanhood with a certain array of behaviors and norms by embracing ‘masculine‘ acts or features which she combines with ‘feminine‘ ones. The intimate appearance of Moradkhani’s drawings – depicting lingerie items, drawn delicately and precisely, as if to materialize the qualities of the garments – is interrupted by imagery of historical events as well as masculine physical features. These unconventional amalgamations contextualize the works; the revealing lingerie, symbolizing the sexualized woman contrasting the restrained women of present-day Iran, is combined with images that deviate significantly from this set of connotations. Applying humor as well as political critique, Moradkhani’s works challenge the dichotomic divide between men and women and their relation to power by blurring the lines between tradition and modernity. The delicate, presumably ‘hyper-feminine’ drawings – which include multiple ‘masculine’ points of reference – attend to womanhood from the eyes of women in post-revolution Iran, replacing aesthetics of pleasure with the dynamics of vulnerability and violence.
The female body, only subtly implied in Moradkhani’s work, is often placed in the center of women artists’ investigation of their identity. Such exploration of the relationship between traditional gender roles and the female body as a site of political debate as well as personal dilemmas is examined in Ruth Patir’s video Petach Tikva (2020). Presenting a cross-temporal reflection on womanhood and society’s expectation of women to bear children, the video displays nine animated figurines of Canaanite fertility deities situated in a fertility clinic’s waiting room. The exchange of an ancient ritual with the modern visit to the clinic transforms the deities from celestial entities to physical bodies in need of medical treatment. Patir’s decision to animate fertility deities exemplifies the minimal changes that have occurred in society’s perception of the familial structure and its significance. Women – then and now – find themselves taking extreme measures to become mothers, may it be due to personal desires, societal expectations or politics of labor in certain fields. Although the work travels long distances in time, it remains relatively close to home – the artist has chosen figurines that were found across the region in archeological excavations, thus transgressing present-day political borders. The inability to attribute the figurines to a specific country or nationality suggests a broader geo-political scope of assumptions and expectations of women in the area. In other words, while Abu Zoulouf and Moradkhani attend to the specific circumstances of women raised in selected traditional societies, Patir speaks of a greater phenomenon, cross-bordered and cross-temporal, which she identifies in multiple societies around her, attending to womanhood beyond the stereotypes in her own community.
The exploration of the female body, however, could take multiple forms. If Patir’s work thinks of the position of women through the biological function of their bodies in the familial structure, Joana Kohen reflects upon the body from a non-gendered perspective. In her work, the body is no longer that of a woman, but of hybrid, gender-switching figures. The enigmatic, faceless figures seem at once both intimidating and harmless; both dangerous and in-danger. They float in blank, opaque spaces, often in the presence of plant-like SCI-FI creatures, generating a sensation of a constant shift between attachment and alienation. In the works, the primordial, reproductive function of the body is reexamined and subverted by its destructive potential – carnivorous plants and reproductive organs become interchangeable, and a clear line between the libido and the death drive is almost nonexistent. The uncanny sensation the works stimulate is difficult to ignore. The figures examine human estrangement as well as our fascination with the things that frighten us. It is with these anonymous figures that the artist enters a realm that is between the ancient and the futuristic, where her dialectic web of associations is driven by desires and fears. This ambivalent, non-binary approach is portrayed in the fragility of the works, all seem to be eternally in process of becoming, never resilient enough to be completely finished. Kohen’s manipulations hold them intact; the artist subtly handles the works, as if layering emotional reactions upon the fabric and paper.
The question of temporality seems to recur in Present Imperfect. Some artists, such as Abu Zoulouf and Moradkhani, think about the changing modes of operation in the modern world and their effects on traditional norms. Patir and Kohen go further in time, to the ancient perceptions of women and their bodies. The final set of works in the exhibition by artist Maya Perry, centers on the present moment. The artist created The Bed Series, composed of five works of drawing and audio, each attributed to one of the artists in Present Imperfect. In an online dialogue, Perry invited the artists to describe their beds in a voice message recorded in their mother tongue, and accompany it with a translated transcript. The audios were then sampled into songs and the transcript was the starting point of Perry’s drawings, meant to be observed while the songs are played.
Opting for an intimate, domestic space, the bedroom, Perry explores notions of gender through the examination and exposure of one’s most personal space. The intimate descriptions are interrupted by the vast geographical area in which the project takes place – the artists are in different locations and speak different languages. The connection between artists from around the world is crucial here. It defies the notion that women are bound to their homes, to their local surroundings, uninvited to participate in the global exchange of thought and development. In this instance, the web becomes a means of overcoming physical boundaries.
By omitting the translations from her final work, Perry calls for a connection that exceeds language. Her intimate drawings of intimate locations visualize the descriptions provided by the people who inhabit these spaces, in a language the viewer/listener does not necessarily understand. This “untranslatability” generates a space that both rejects the erasure of differences between cultures and humans while pointing to universal experiences that go beyond pre-established constructs; the words may be incomprehensible, but their visual and auditory expression creates a different kind of familiarity.
The works exhibited in Present Imperfect share certain features: they all harness the female gaze to trace its own origins, to question the position of women in today’s socio-political terrain, as well as to propose and fantasize about future shifts and possibilities. Each artist, however, views the implications of her gender as a woman in different, sometimes contrasting, ways. ‘Womanhood’ could be attributed to gender roles, to biological functions, or to personal reflections, displaying the stratified meaning of the category ‘woman’. In addition, the Middle East is present in different volumes in each of the works. Sometimes it is a category reflecting restriction, in other times it is an opportunity to generate connections and possibilities. The works refuse to align with a homogenous understanding of the issues they interrogate, and argue against a perfect, univocal definition of ‘womanhood’ in the Middle East.
_ Darya Aloufy
Darya Aloufy is an art historian and curator. She holds a BA in History of Art from Tel Aviv University and an MA in History of Art from University College London. Her research focuses on ambivalent narratives of identity and counter-narratives, with special interest in photographic archives as well as women’s image. She is currently the Assistant Curator at TAU Gallery.