Precarious Symbolism: When the Political Sphere Overshadows Art History

By Farhat, Maymanah | Art Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Precarious Symbolism: When the Political Sphere Overshadows Art History


Farhat, Maymanah, Art Journal


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 Wu Walla (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 spiritmuses, or temptresses, appear to further torment the central character, as she takes contemporary political cliches 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 torturously 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 multi-venue 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 ride 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. …

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