Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Forces of Change: Women Artists of the Arab World"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Forces of Change: Women Artists of the Arab World"

Article excerpt

"Forces of Change: Women Artists of the Arab World"

Because one of the most persistent negative Western stereotypes of Arabs concerns the status of Arab women, the "Forces of Change: Women Artists of the Arab World" exhibition, opening on Feb. 7, 1994, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC should lift the veil from American minds. The exhibition was launched in October by Queen Noor of Jordan and has luminaries such as Naguib Mahfouz on its honorary board. After Washington, DC, "Forces of Change" will travel to Boston, Miami and Atlanta.

The exhibition is the culmination of six years of hard work by Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi, a Palestinian who lives in Lafayette, California. "It signals America's paramount importance in Arab affairs--and the importance of the Middle East to America," she explained. "We are targeting a double-negative stereotype for Americans who have distorted views about Arabs in general, and especially about Arab women.

Counteracting Negative Images

"In the U.S., women are counted as one of the many legitimate special interest groups whose rights must be protected. This exhibition will help counteract the generally negative images many Americans have about the role of Arab women in their societies by demonstrating that Arab women are indeed afforded the right of self-expression."

In addition to educating people about Arab women, the exhibition is intended to counter the impression that "modern, contemporary art is an exclusively Western idea," Nashashibi explains. "People look on what Arabs do as really improved traditional art."

The work will be displayed as part of the "total experience of humanity" rather than as ethnic Arab art. "Our plates, our textiles, our clothes--our art in fact--has always been around us. It is not just to be hung on gallery walls for families to look at on Fridays. Arabs have been creating abstract art for centuries so, when you look at Islamic art, old and new, in this way, it is not so surprising that Arab women are creating modern, abstract, art forms."

The exhibition will also include a film and lecture series by Arab women. "You know, the first film produced by an Arab woman was as long ago as 1927, in Egypt," Nashashibi points out. "It was called Leila, directed by Aziza Ameer."

The International Council for Women in the Arts expects to raise over $400,000 for the project. Gallery space will be provided free of charge. While American women are responding favorably, the reactions of the Arab-American community are mixed.

"The second generation, those born here, or who have been here a long time, see the importance of this project," Salwa Nashashibi says. "They know the way Americans think, and realize that this is a good way to create favorable images of the Arab world. The first generation tends to see more pressing concerns in dealing with events in the Middle East itself."

Nashashibi herself became a graphic arts enthusiast as a direct reaction to Middle East events. "When I was at the American University of Beirut in the 1970s, during the civil war there, I used to go to galleries to relax, to escape," she explains. "Although the artists were still involved in the struggles, there was a richness and beauty in the interpretation of their feelings and concerns.

"Later, when I came here, I helped mount exhibitions of traditional embroidery and weaving in California and Texas. I was trying to promote Arab culture in a more positive way, but I began to worry. Anonymous Arab women, hunched over looms, weaving traditional patterns, fit American stereotypes of Arab women. So I felt that Americans should get a more up-to-date picture. And the exhibition itself may raise the status of Arab women involved.

"For example, I went to a carpet factory in Tunisia where there were 6,000 women weaving--but none of their work had signatures. The director was surprised when I asked him if the women were allowed to make their own carpets. …

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