A Review of Feminism(s) x The Arab and Muslim Diaspora at Protein Studios, London
'…And I feel free. My womanhood is all I have left. Here I am away. Here I am not alone. I watch this layer of darkness glide off my skin and I wonder: do you really see such a difference between you and me? We are shedding you off of us. We are looking for our skin so rich underneath all of what you’ve lazily plastered on. Can you see clearer now?’ - Yumna Al-Arashi, Shedding Skin, 2017
These words are gently spoken by a female voice on top of a video in which dozens of nude women wash themselves in a hammam (a female bathing house) in Beirut. The narrator and filmmaker, Yumna Al-Arashi, is one of seven female artists from the Arab and Muslim diaspora whose work was exhibited at Protein Studios in Shoreditch this August.
Feminism(s) x The Arab and Muslim Diaspora was the first in a series of exhibitions curated by recent Goldsmiths graduates Loren Elhili and Susanna Pousette, which explore the identities that have been excluded from feminism in the past. In part a reaction to Trump’s Muslim ban in the US, the debut show brought together female artists across a range of media to both destroy and challenge static stereotypes of Arab and Islamic women.
Al-Arashi’s film is a delicate response to counter the restricted understanding Arab women. In the clip young and old sit together pouring water over one another and combing each other’s hair. They are all different, some have tattoos; some have short hair, some long, but despite their individualities, they appear like sisters. The accompanying wall text reads: ‘As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.’ Al-Arashi, along with the other artists, beautifully informs the viewer that what western society has led us to believe about Arab and Muslim women, is incorrect. Her women have literally been stripped of their clothing, their protection; they could be anyone. Shown in their most vulnerable state, Al-Arashi rids them of the notions tipped onto them by Western media. Her camera draws the viewer into their private world, in a trusting, loving approach, re-positioning her characters simply as women, without any unrequired additional definition of ethnicity or religion.
Shedding Skin reminds the viewer that all female bodies, underneath their material clothing are, below surface level, more or less the same. Nour Malas’s sculptural work reinforces a similar notion. Pomegranate II (2017) consists of a singular round form with a pomegranate placed in the centre that has then been covered in white latex. The very material of the work is deeply suggestive, appearing as a single breast alone against a blank wall, with the deep colour of the red fruit peeping through its white and clinical elastic covering. Opposite Two Bodies Disconnected (2016) appears in the form of two marble blocks that repel each other like magnets. They suggest the embodiment of two souls that are supposed to connect, but for some reason just can’t, a situation that I’m sure many of us have found ourselves in at one moment or another.
Also on display are a series of seven photographic works by Maimouna Guerresi projected onto a white wall. In Montagne Nere (2006) veiled women appear mysteriously on top of a mountain. They are each dressed in a single colour: white, red and black, and positioned next to a flame. It is mysterious, magical and powerful. Similarly, in Light Signs (2011) a woman raises her hands to cover her face, on which a single gold stripe is painted onto each palm. Across the gallery, in a stark contrast to the bathing women in Shedding Skin, Al-Arashi’s prints Northern Yemen (2016) present stunning images of women dressed in hijab and niqab in gorgeous Yemeni landscapes. The photographs not only illustrate the beauty of Yemen but also just how strong, powerful and elegant Yemeni women are and how beautiful their clothing can be.
Photography and video merge in Sanaa Hamid’s Ethnographic Selfies (2014) composed of monochrome gifs displayed on television screens. Her digital self-portraits confront Islamic stereotypes in a South Asian context, in an exploration of her own identity. More photographs appear suspended from the ceiling in Maha Alasaker’s Women of Kuwait (2015). 22 women are shown on double-sided cards with answers to interview questions printed on the reverse side. Each woman is described by name, age, marital status and profession. Alasaker gives a voice to females who are often judged before they have a chance to be heard. The women talk about a range of topics from issues with their nation’s constitution to learning how to express themselves.
In a digital installation, Lilian Nejatpour explores Zoroastrianism and its relation to technology. The audience is invited to sit down on a structure that plays a modern take on traditional music in Bassline Zar (2017) which is situated next to a traditional Persian carpet. Not far from Nejatpour’s work is Tasnim Baghdadi’s Resistance, a large red and purple illustration of a group of women all staring at the viewer with their hands raised. Each woman has an eye drawn onto her palm. All of the females in the piece appear different; one is in a beret, while another is in hijab. And, while they are all individuals, they appear together, in solidarity.
The exhibition successfully sparked conversation into how we understand women from a culture different to our own. In the future, Elhili and Pousette plan film screenings, panel talks and more exhibitions to highlight different cultures and heritages within female art practice.
Written by Lizzy Vartanian Collier, a Contributor to Arteviste.