Beyond the Veil: Learning to Teach Fine Arts in a Muslim Culture

By Pepin-Wakefield, Yvonne | Art Education, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Veil: Learning to Teach Fine Arts in a Muslim Culture


Pepin-Wakefield, Yvonne, Art Education


In 2004, when I left my secure position as an arts specialist in an American elementary school to teach art at the university level in the Middle Eastern state of Kuwait, I formed preliminary impressions of the area through the televised coverage of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and subsequent libération, Middle Eastern links to September 1 1, 2001, and the war in Iraq. I knew only what I had heard about Kuwait, a generalized stereotype it shares with its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iraq: a hot and arid land with constricting religious mores, and the most limited of personal freedoms, especially for women. Confronting the myths and the realities behind these stereotypes became a daily process of awakening as I learned to teach studio arts to young women in a country I knew so little about.

Of the numerous clichés and stereotypes about the Middle East (the words "Middle East" and "Arab culture" are used interchangeably), the typical ones portray the Arab culture as being:

* Dominated by deserts and camels, a place of arbitrary cruelty and barbarism (Wingfield & Karaman, 1995).

* Populated by men in turbans and long white robes waving long curved swords and married to four wives; women in black with their faces covered or scantily clad in harems serving a single man; rich oil sheikhs and terrorists (Global Connections in the Middle East, 2006).

In popular culture, films like Disney's Aladdin east Arab women as belly dancers, harem girls, or husband-sharing wives, while Arab men are depicted as violent terrorists, oil sheikhs, and marauding tribesmen who kidnap blonde Western women (Wingfield & Karaman, 1995). Partially influenced by these Middle Eastern associations, and provided with little information about my new teaching job in Kuwait, I knew only that I could not teach art using live models, and that referencing the human figure or natural objects was questionable in Muslim societies. This knowledge supported what little I knew about Islamic art - mainly, that it took the form of anaconic (without images) geometrical designs and ornamental architecture.

Finding Different Strategies

As a Western-trained artist and arts educator, Eurocentric art publications and artworks shaped my aesthetic viewpoints. My formal schooling in studio arts included a 3-year certificate and BA degree in fine arts. Much of my studio instruction involved drawing, painting, and sculpting from live nude models. In Kuwait, popular interpretations of the Quran (the Koran), the Muslim holy book, prohibit the use of nude models (Yamani, 2005). I had to find alternatives to Western tried and true teaching methods, adapt my teaching methodologies to students with limited exposure to studio arts, and learn to see through my own veil of illusions about Arab women.

Although I do not wear the aboya (the long, black cloak-like garment that goes from the top of the head to the ground), or the hijab or sheyla (types of head scarves that usually cover the hair and neck entirely), over 95% of my students in this women's college wear both the abaya and hijab, and some wear the nigab (a veil that covers the face, leaving only the eyes uncovered). They had little or no background in studio art. On my first day in the classroom, I began with a practice I still use in studio classes as a warm-up: I asked students to volunteer to be models for quick gesture drawings. At first there was shyness, but then a willingness to model for the class. Because long abayas and kijabs limit the flow of organic lines and proportions to create perspective and spatial relationships, 1 asked the student models to hold objects of various sizes at different distances from their bodies.

Male Kuwaiti colleagues found my practice of having students pose somewhat revolutionary. They could not use the technique with their drawing classes for women because it is haram (forbidden) in Islam for a man to look with such scrutiny at a female who is not a member of his immediate family. …

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