‘Fertile Crescent’ Exhibit Offers Insight into Paradoxes of Contemporary Middle East
Renowned Middle Eastern women artists’ work on display at Rutgers and Princeton now through January
There are images of Fulla, the Muslim Barbie, juxtaposed with video of a Damascan housewife. There is a self-portrait of a rifle-toting woman in a chador, a Farsi feminist poem written across her cheek. And there's a painting of a melting nuclear reactor, rendered in a style based on Persian miniature art.
These are just three of more than 100 pieces in the “Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society’’ exhibition, which features 24 Middle Eastern women artists. The multi-site exhibition will be held at Rutgers and Princeton University and the Arts Council of Princeton this month through January.
Much of the work examines the artists’ dual identity as women, viewed through both the lens of their own cultures and their interactions with Western societies.
“There’s a phrase ‘unavailable intersections,’ that describes it,’’ says Judith K. Brodsky, co-director of the Rutgers Institute for Women and the Arts, which organized the exhibit and programming. “There are all of these intersections of nationalities, religion, gender and history. And the artists are expressing the complexities and uncertainties of the intersections in which they live."
The project, curated by Brodsky and Ferris Olin, also co-director of the institute, is more than just an exhibition. It includes scores of events spanning academic, cultural and civic institutions across New Jersey. There are plays, film screenings, panel discussions, musical and theatrical performances, off-site exhibitions and other events associated with the exhibition, which Brodsky and Olin spent five years planning and curating. “It’s not just about identifying art work.’’ says Olin. “There’s audience cultivation involved, too; we reached out to student and community groups all over the state and metropolitan area.’’
"The Fertile Crescent'' has been endorsed by the Consul Generals of France, Israel, the Federal Republic of Germany, and United Kingdom, which recognizes it as a groundbreaking attempt to shed light on a group of artists who may be unfamiliar to Westerners but whose work explores the nuances of the cultures, countries, and people who comprise what the West has termed “The Middle East.”
Some artists tackle the brutality of oppressive regimes, such as a painting by Egyptian artist Nadine Hammam, which references “the woman in the blue bra,’’ an Egyptian protestor who was savagely stripped, beaten by the military and subjected to a virginity test. She became a symbol of resistance after the video of her beating went viral. Hammam’s image is a silhouetted woman in a red bra, straddling a phallic gun mounted on a tank. Olin and Brodsky commissioned the American gender scholar Margot Badran who lives in Cairo, to document women artists and how their work reflects the Tahrir Square uprising and its aftermath. The curators could not import the actual works by these artists, so they featured them in the catalogue and on the Fertile Crescent website. This is the first time they are being viewed in the United States.
Other works skewer the more subtle ways in which women are relegated to second-class status, such as a video by Fatima Al Qadiri, which satirizes Kuwaiti gender attitudes and the influence of Western consumerism. In the video, transvestite men impersonate women gossiping during a daily private tea ritual set in a hotel ballroom, symbolizing the McMansions constructed by wealthy Kuwaitis. They are segregated from men, who drink their tea in public.
Brodsky and Olin hope the exhibit, and its multifaceted programming, which includes sponsorship from other academic departments and research centers within Rutgers, will spark an ongoing dialogue on issues facing Middle Eastern women in their own countries and abroad.
Israeli-American artist Milcah Bassel, a graduate student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, whose work will be exhibited by the West Windsor Arts Council Gallery as part of the Fertile Crescent program, says the Middle Eastern cultural diaspora is also an important element of the project—and her own work. “Artists ... have had the pain and luxury of distance from the other place that makes up a part of their identity,’’ says Bassel. “I’m extremely excited and curious to see the dialogue unfold.’’
Artist Negar Ahkami says she cringes at the term “Islamic world.” “I don’t consider myself Islamic, but this exhibition provides a context," she says.”It seems as if many of us are examining the themes and experiences of Orientalism, of someone who is seen as an 'other,' that’s part of the experience of being lumped together.’’
Ahkami, who grew up in Clifton, draws a parallel between the Victorian fantasy of Middle Eastern women as exotic concubines and contemporary Westerners’ preoccupation with hijabs and burkas. “They were obsessed with harem women because [they thought] Victorian women weren’t like that. Now there is an obsession with the veil. It’s considered a symbol of oppression, but there are different forms of oppression and it’s been overstated and oversimplified in many ways. It’s more complex than that.”
The term “fertile crescent’’ is a play on a phrase that was popularly used to describe the Middle East when Brodsky and Olin were school children. It was a term coined in 1916 by Henry James Breasted, an archeologist who popularized the idea of the Middle East as being part of the cradle of civilization, not just Rome and Greece,’’ says Olin. “It’s also a double entendre because fertile can be related to women as well.’’
Fakhri Haghani, a professor with the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies, believes that art can convey the pride and struggle of Middle Eastern women more effectively than any other medium.“Art is a powerful tool in terms of expressing what is invisible, especially in our visual culture,’’ says Haghani who will be speaking at one of the Fertile Crescent programs. “These are societies that are going through tremendous transformations. American women didn’t get the vote until the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they really started attaining emancipation. We all know that this takes time.”