Woman as a Noun, and a Practice: “As We Gaze Upon Her” at Warehouse421
By Niccolò Acram Cappelletto
Published on November 16th, 2021
Defying Euro-centric views on womanhood represents an ongoing process of deconstruction and collective efforts. After visiting museums and exhibitions in European countries filled with art made by male artists and only recently dedicating attention to the histories of female artists (a recent example being the 2020 “Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana”at the Prado Museum in Spain), I became more and more aware of the importance of a ‘woman’ history outside hegemonic paradigms and their representations in art and cultural institutions. With this interest and curiosity, I visited “As We Gaze Upon Her” at Warehouse421, an exhibition, out of the West, focusing on her-stories of ‘‘woman and its various forms [...]—an idea and a body” (Banat Collective, 2021), in particular through the lens of the WANASA region (West Asia, North Africa and South Asia).
How is it possible today to amplify the stories of “woman” and women through the diverse media of art and curatorial practices? How can the politics of womanhood become a meaningful instance of aesthetic and curatorial practices? “As We Gaze Upon Her” investigates the process of construction and deconstruction, mystification and demystification, of the “woman,” both in its tangible and intangible features. The featured artworks on display are divided into five sections including 25 artists from the WANASA region, all engaged with the exploration of contemporary notions of womanhood between aesthetics and politics. “As We Gaze Upon Her” is curated by Banat Collective, composed of writer and curator, Sara bin Safwan, and multi-disciplinary artist and educator, Sarah Alagroobi. The exhibition is part of the Curatorial Development Exhibition programme organised by Warehouse421 and the Bombay Institute of Critical Analysis and Research (BICAR). Emerging and more established artists contributed to the exhibition, united under the topic of body, identity, and “woman,” a noun used in its singular form by the curators.
“Banat Collective considers how ‘woman’ can be a vehicle of exploitation, proposing an aesthetics and politics of emancipation that reclaims ‘woman’s’ boundless potentiality.”
From the beginning of “As We Gaze Upon Her,” the moment when I try to have a glimpse on the whole setting, the exhibition provoked in me a sense of liveliness and exploration. The diversity of media and themes achieves a sense of hunger for art creation. A natural curiosity stems from the artworks and branches in media and questions researched while maintaining a common focus, mediated through curation. The curatorial project does not supersede the artworks exhibited but highlights them and builds the network of relations in the different rooms. By having the walls of the whole exhibition in a gradient hues of pink, “As We Gaze Upon Her” develops its macro-themes showcasing the artworks without concealing them or burdening them. From the first section, “Subverting the Gaze,” there is a clear attempt to reposition the female ‘self’ in opposition to patriarchal structures. By revealing these structures and appropriating them, the artists recover the gaze and shift the focus from being gazed to gaze. For instance, the references to Orientalist art from the 18th and 19th century by Farwa Moledina’s No one is neutral here (2019) and Baya Collective’s Women of Ourselves (2019) expose and reverse the usual story of the white male’s knowledge over its female oriental subject. The artworks of this section reveal a need for rediscovering the female depiction beyond the stereotypical portraits that dominated its representation. Moledina takes control of the female depiction, while Baya Collective showcases an intimate setting for women to gather and operate.
The archival aesthetics of Evar Hussayini’s av û nan hevpar e di nav me de, tu xwişka min î û ez xwişka te me (water and bread split between us - you are my sister and i am your sister) (2018-ongoing) transports the viewer through familiar photographs of women as memories coming out of the Keffiyeh composing the background of the frames. Hussayini reclaims the narrative of the pictures using archival tools to present the women’s journey of identity building. Next to the artwork, the video installation Precautions (2020) by Maitha Hamdan exposes the male gaze by showing herself while eating an ice cream through a veil where pink and white dominate the space in the video, immersed in a pink wall. I, as a viewer, see and am seen, as the artworks look at each other with an emphasis on gazes and body depiction. The use of pink, a color commonly associated to girls and women from birth, assumes almost an ironic allure when it becomes the frame of these artworks with their power of shedding light on women's misrepresentations.
“When will we know patriarchy has been overcome? And, when it has, what happens to masks, to ‘womanliness’?”
The second section is dedicated to the theme of the “Masquerade” as a female practice often imposed on the woman body —yet, reclaimed and offered as a space for active creation and production. The variance of media include Aude Nasr’s Reversing Symbols (2021), playing with the photographic medium to exhibit a fluid identity of the portrayed person, in dialogue with Rania Jishi’s Dinner Is Served (2021), which features a full table with ceramics plates, bowls and glasses, presenting only the external structure of a dinner, left to be filled with the imagination of the viewer. In another room, different media intermingle and explore the role of body rituals and everyday life. From the two-channel videos by Ferwa Ibrahim’s Ablutions (2011), examining the Islamic ‘wudu’ highlighting the water with blue colour, to Saba Askari’s Untitled (Shelter, Flag) (2019), which is composed of used make-up wipes collected in one installation, these artworks expose the intimate space of performative body actions commonly associated with women. The dialogue continues with Shamiran Istifan’s Hanging Garden of Ishtar (2021), an installation dedicated to the evocation of body hair through a fountain from which sugar wax hangs. Finally, Aarti Sunder’s Setting Fire to the Sun (2019) explores the structures that regulate everyday life by presenting a confusional aquarium setting that alienates the viewer. This section transitions from the idea of gaze to focus on the individual’s body preluding to the third section: “Vindication of the Body.”
“Banat Collective resists the effects of society’s assigning base corporeality to women and free mindfulness to men, exhibiting work that divorces the body from sensations of guilt, shame and displacement.”
Vindication of the Body presents works that deal with figuration, sometimes alluded to, and depiction of the body in place of something else. In a liminal space between evidence and concealment, the body is present even in case of its absence. To connect the following three artworks is the body as a vessel to investigate and deconstruct. Augustine Paredes’s Good Night, Sweet Dreams (2021) installation uses a self-portrait to tell stories of displacement in its intimate moments. Likewise, Amina Yahia’s Te'rafy (2021) painting resonates with fragmentation and quest for the female identity in all its different forms navigating what is considered appropriate or not and including depictions of women of different ages in the same pictorial units. Between figuration and abstraction, Alymamah Rashed’s Arak Kul Yawm Li’Anak Tahwa Ma Katalt / I See You Everyday Because You Have Adored What You Killed (2020) finds in the figure of “Muslima Cyborg,” ‘a metaphysical figure [that] stages a conflict with voyeurism through vivid, delicate mark-making and composition’ (Banat Collective, 2021).
The other three artworks of this section particularly resonate with each other between opacity and tangible presence. Sarah Ibrahim’s Who we are out of the dark (2020) adopts cyanotype as a technique to print the artist’s body parts into the blue fabric, which turns the presence into absence, the physicality into a memory. Suleika Mueller’s Underneath My Cloth (2019) is a photograph of a seated body wrapped in white cloth surrounded by white fabric, erasing any feature except for the fabric folds. The third piece is Mashael Alsaie’s 3aroosa “Bride” (2020) merges archival footage of oil machinery with the theme of bridal rituals offering a critical lens to social development and the role of women in a changing society. These three works claim in their own way technology and bodies while presenting in absence the female body. The flattening of the body and the exploration of cloth and machinery tells stories on the agency of women in the region’s contemporary societies.
“Ultimately, this chapter questions how liberation can be achieved outside traditional, cultural, and patriarchal formulations.”
The section Difference as Incompleteness explores the social setting of artistic and cultural practices. Mariam Haji’s Mutamaridah (2021-2019) explores self-portraiture through drawing and poetry to explore her Syrian cultural background; in a similar way, Shatha Al-Husseini’s 1,001 Ways to Use Rosewater (2021) is a homage to familiar settings through the diasporic lens, which she uses to analyse her own identity and roots. Aliyah Alawadhi’s triptych Psychic Impotence (2021) offers an image of women for women to detach from the male gaze of nudity aiming beyond the house setting where the norms of femininity start forming. Towards a material abstraction, Sharifa Horaiz’s Seated Figure on Pedestal (2021) reinvents the female body in shapes and forms deconstructing the physicality to reassert a sense of ambiguity.
The use of cloth and the relationship between body and identity is the theme of Walid Al Wawi’s In the name of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2018), in which a Palestinian refugee document is replicated onto a Palestinian thobe, usually worn by women. The artwork inscribes the refugee status into the heritage of Palestine linking the present to the past. Walid al Wawi and Augustine Paredes are the two male artists included in the exhibition who both deal with themes concerning the body politics, either in the intimate setting of Paredes or the official politics of body mobility of Al Wawi. Including these two artworks expand the narrative on the gendered body by evoking the issues that pertain to every body when facing displacement, separation, and identity issues. In between Difference as Incompleteness and the last section of the exhibition is Umber Majeed’s Hypersurface of the Present (2018), which strikes with the neon quality of its green in opposition to the exhibition's gradual pink theme. Majeed presents and reinterprets the ‘digital kitsch’ of South Asia in five framed posters in front of an amputated body sculpture. The use of green is both a reference to the nationalism of her country of origin, Pakistan, and its nuclear politics.
7. Umber Majeed, Hypersurface of the Present, 2018. Pencil on paper, wood, plaster, and thread. “As We Gaze Upon Her,” Opening at Warehouse421. Image courtesy of Warehouse421.
“Dysfunctionality exhumes the ideologies that fester in the fragmentation of feminine experience and identity.”
After deconstructing and reconstructing the female body and depiction, the last chapter looks forward and proposes how a discussion on women can be based on the ‘incompleteness’ and ‘imperfection’ of the female, and human, experience. What is dysfunctional about the overarching structures in which a “woman” lives and operates? The abstract painting of Tala Worrell in P and Vinegar (2020) depicts different materialities embracing her memories and chaos in a journey through her young years. Youth is also the theme of Zuhoor Al Sayegh’s You Carry Her Name (2021), in which tiles of paper look fragile and symbolise a past time in the artist’s life. Jude Al-Keraishan presents a series of monochromatic photographs, Sanad (2019), in which the masnad, a supporting structure for a seat, is sequentially broken up as a way ‘to introduce the space of the woman to disfigure patriarchy.’ The closing artwork of the exhibition is Transgressed Boundaries (2020) by Samar Hejazi, which is an installation of threads of traditional Palestinian motifs reflected on a mirroring surface. The artwork is singled out outside the room where the other artworks reside but nevertheless, it concludes a journey of fragmentation and deconstruction of women's presence through art practices of different genres and themes.
To conclude the exhibition, there is a glossary of terms and notions engaging with the principal themes and discourses dealt. I found this curatorial choice as a way to enlighten some of the terms used in the curatorial text but at the same time, a critical standpoint towards definitions and the words we use to describe the experience of women artists. As Sarah Alagroobi points out during the curatorial talk at the opening event, the glossary serves to highlight what can be defined and what escapes a formal explanation. It made me think of the accessibility of “As We Gaze Upon Her” and of the ways people could relate to the show. Personally, I found it an interesting tool to present the elements used to talk about womanhood leaving space to the artworks to go against those terms and their genealogy in European and North-American discourses. For instance, the inclusion of male artists in a feminist discourse brings to the surface the intersectionality of issues faced, not only by women artists, but more specifically artists from the WANASA region, dealing with ideas of displacement and identity.
The show made me think of my feminist references and I believe that a discourse on the autonomy of women in the art system resonates with the ideas formulated by art critic and feminist theoretician Carla Lonzi (1931-1982). Before rejecting the art system, Lonzi was disappointed with the ways women artists decided to work in the 1960s Italian art system. In opposition to patriarchal norms and male rule, Lonzi explored discourses on the woman identity by starting from herself in a diary, Shut up, or rather Speak (Taci, anzi Parla, 1978). She was rejecting the idea of ‘fight[ing] patriarchy with its own weapons’ (Fontaine, 2013) because it would have just continued the male dominance on thought and reality. “As We Gaze Upon Her” operates in a similar way trying to deconstructing the feminist discourse and its meanings for WANASA artists.
As invitations to more questions and not solutions, the different statements in the exhibition provide departure points to experience with the artworks. The visitor is left with the curiosity to look at the artworks and find answers, if any can be found, to the questions raised by the curatorial framework. The viewer can flow in the rooms without strictly following the order of the sections but is able to find their own connections among sections and artworks. The diversity of media does not create cacophonies but rather emphasise the need for an extensive and pervasive encompassing self-analysis of artistic media. Exploring how women, but not solely, make art about women, how gazes shape perceptions and produce illusions, how official his-tory must include her-story. This reminds me of feminist theoretician Donna Haraway’s statement that ‘it matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories’ (Staying with the Trouble, 2016). Art and curatorial practices are fundamental tools of reinterpretation and expansion of canons and norms to display environments open to re-centering the role of women in society, both in the region and the world.
“As We Gaze Upon Her” quotes in its curatorial texts excerpts from North-American and European thought (from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel until Canadian author Margaret Atwood) risking to frame the sections into a general discourse on feminism. Nonetheless, the artworks tell the stories of womanhood and female experiences from the region’s perspective, either in agreement or in opposition to the quotes. The feminist ideas of finding new ‘weapons’ resonate with the ambition of “As We Gaze Upon Her” to present a different story, often an uncertain story. As BICAR mentor Rohit Goel expressed in the curatorial presentation, referring to the curatorial process of deconstruction is a ‘groundless ground’ for the risks of losing oneself. The risk paid off for the quality of the exhibition that offers a contemporary perspective on female historical (mis)representation and the legacies in the present for the arts and politics of womanhood in the region. While displaying personal and collective stories of being a woman, the exhibition achieves a sense of genuine curiosity for everything concerning the identity and body, aesthetics and politics, of the “woman,” applicable in WANASA and beyond.
All the quotes in bold are taken from the curatorial texts of “As We Gaze Upon Her.” The exhibition is hosted in Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, from the 16th of October until the 23rd of January and is curated by Banat Collective. It is part of the Curatorial Development Exhibition Programme in collaboration with Warehouse421 and the Bombay Institute for Critical Analysis and Research.
Niccolò Acram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily and a Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies, he is conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy. Recently, he collaborated on the Paris Bible Project with NYUAD and the Louvre Abu Dhabi on the study of bible manuscripts from the XIII century. Niccolò worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.