July 2009, The Seen and the Hidden [Dis]covering the Veil @ Austrian Cultural Forum
Hand-painted sculptures on shelf,
Courtesy Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery,
Photo David Plakke
The Seen and the Hidden [Dis]covering the Veil at Austrian Cultural Forum
11 E 52nd St.
New York, NY 10022
May 22 through August 29, 2009
Curated by David Harper, Martha Kirszenbaum, and Karin Meisel
Artists: Ayad Alkadhi, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Adriana Czernin, Katrina Daschner, Shadi Ghadirian, Nilbar Güres, Marlene Haring, Farheen HAQ, Princess Hijab, Hannah Menne, Sara Rahbar, Marjane Satrapi, Asma Ahmed Shikoh, and Esin Turan.
Ever since the Ottoman sultans' attempted invasion of the Austrian Empire in 1525, Islam has been a growing presence in Austria. Although the Ottoman attack was thwarted, Islam’s emergence into Central Europe led many Austrians to become Mohammedans. The Berlin Conference of 1878 allowed for greater immigration and assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the empire and, by 1912, Emperor Franz Josef I issued the Islam Law, which formally acknowledged his Muslim subjects. The emperor even made monetary donations toward the erection of a monumental mosque in central Vienna, although this undertaking would soon be disrupted mid-process by the advent of World War I. By 1977, Article Three of the Austrian Constitution would include the Islamic Religion Body, which not only guarantees Muslims the right to worship in Austria, but also allows for educators to teach Islamic studies in public schools.
A 2000 census reports that there are now over 200 mosques in Austria and that Muslims comprise over five percent of Austria’s general population. Most of the country’s Muslim immigrants hail from Turkey, commonly finding work as civil servants in Vienna and other Austrian cities and, now more than ever, rising in executive ranks. Muslims have become so integrated into the social fabric of Austria that over one-third of the country’s Muslim population reports having at least some Austrian blood. Moreover, unlike in France, it does not ruffle the average Viennese’s feathers to see women walking in front of the Hofburg, garbed in traditional hijabs, or veils, that cover their heads and necks.
That’s not to say that discrimination against Muslims in Austria is a thing of the past, just as it is far from absent in the rest of Europe or America. This is one of the main reasons why the Austrian Cultural Forum of New York is offering its newest exhibition, The Seen and the Hidden: [Dis]Covering the Veil, until August 29. In a written statement on the Forum’s website, Director Andreas Stadler writes, “We want to promote a serious dialogue and take advantage of the opportunity that a new era in the USA is opening for relations between the Orient and the Occident.” In order to advance such a dialogue on a broad scale, the Forum has expanded its exhibition to include works on the subject of the veil by Muslim and non-Muslim artists alike in Austria, France, Iran and America.
According to Stadler, the Austrian Cultural Forum approaches controversies surrounding Islam’s mandate that women wear veils from two general perspectives. On the one hand, as a political scientist born in Austria, Stadler says, “The veil can no longer be condoned as a forced covering imposed by governments, societies and culture.” On the other hand, as a supporter of individual liberties, he offers a counterpoint: “A growing number of young women in Turkey and around the world are consciously and actively in favor of covering their neck, head, and face with cloth…[I]f self-confident and independent women choose a certain form of covering for their bodies out of their own free will, we should accept it with respect and not reject it as backwards or even generate hostility toward it.”
Consonant with Stadler’s position of respect for women who independently elect to wear the veil, Asma Ahmed Shikoh, a female artist of Pakistani heritage who lives and works in New York City, has produced a piece for the exhibit called The Beehive. In this mixed-media sculpture, Shikoh has constructed a wooden likeness of a beehive - literally, a domestic structure in which bees raise their young - and has inserted into the honeycombs over 100 hijabs from Muslim women across America. Honeybees are honored in the Qu’ran for their capacity to build community and manufacture honey, domestic attributes commonly ascribed to women. Written on the side of each cell is the name and occupation of each woman who has donated her scarf to the installation, including “Farah, Connecticut, Research Assistant” and “Faranza, New Jersey, Management Consultant.” Many of the women featured in The Beehive reverted to Islam after living a mostly secular life, disconnected from their cultural heritage, in America. One woman named Irum, a student in New York, apparently found a happy compromise between her mainstream American life and her Indian Muslim origins as she mentions that her flowery blue and white hijab “represents me—fun, bold and sparkling.”
The exhibition also features a comic strip from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, which, in 2007, became a critically acclaimed animated film in cinemas worldwide. In the early 1980s, Satrapi’s fiercely left-wing family in Tehran sent her to live in Vienna for fear that their outspoken daughter would not survive the Iranian Revolution. The Satrapi comic installation illustrates the evolution of her own concept of the veil. Throughout her childhood in Iran, Satrapi viewed the veil as a bizarre form of oppression, yet, as a teenager in Vienna, she would come to regard it as a link to her lost past in the Middle East. Upon her return to Tehran as a young woman in the 1990s, the veil would become an essential piece of her everyday apparel. Now living in Paris, Satrapi has shed the veil but can empathize as deeply with those who choose to uphold Islamic tradition as she can with those who actively eschew it.
Another Iranian artist named Negar Ahkami has captured similar themes in her outstanding installation, Persian Dolls (2009). Born in New Jersey, Ahkami grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in her own words, “uses the negotiation of her cultural heritage as the impetus for her art-making.” In Persian Dolls, Ahkami “Iranifies” eight traditional Russian matryoshka (nesting) dolls, which she has hand-painted and lined up on a shelf from smallest to largest (1.5”; 2.225”; 3”; 4”; 4.875”; 5.875”; 7”; 9”). Shrouded in a black chador with a furrowed brow, the outermost doll is meant to reflect western stereotypes of Islamic women. From left to right, as the veils on the matryoshkas grow lighter, the women grow progressively smaller and more westernized until we ultimately come to the scantily clad bikini babe who threw her veil away just like yesterday’s news.
An intriguing reinterpretation of the veil comes from Esin Turan, a Vienna-based artist of Turkish descent. In her photo, Livata, 2009, the gruffly bearded subject dons a black hijab with a rainbow flag draped across the chest in reaction to the rigid gender constructs confronted as a homosexual in Islamic society. Only in a secular western state like Austria could Turan get away with such an expression; likewise, Muslim women can only feel free to forgo the veil when religion does not dictate the laws of the state.
The Seen and the Unseen: [Dis]Covering the Veil crosses cultural and national boundaries in interpreting the many ways in which the veil affects Muslim women and contemporary civilization as a whole. Through a variety of media including painting, sculpture, photography, and video installations, the viewer senses not only that Islam’s presence is increasing in the western world, but also that benighted concepts of women are falling away even in milieus where women willingly uphold such traditions as wearing hijabs. For this enlightening exhibition, the Austrian Cultural Forum has assembled an international consortium of artists whose works affirm that, whether or not one opts to keep tradition, we must all work individually and collectively to pierce the veils of sexism and xenophobia.
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Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Editor of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma and a frequent contributor to Edge Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. He is preparing for the release of his novel, 85A. Visit his website at www.streetlegalplay.com