SWANA Women Artists Deserve Better



LOS ANGELES — Months earlier than it opened, Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond on the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (LACMA) promised to attract consideration to one of many demographics most uncared for by United States artwork establishments: female-identifying artists in or from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA). Like so many gender- or ethnicity-themed group reveals, Ladies Defining Ladies suffers from its limitations even because it offers much-needed and deserved consideration to the artists. However, not like extra worldwide or Euro-American showcases of ladies artists, it additionally suffers from poorly outlined parameters and a weak understanding of its personal premise and artists.

That includes 75 works by 42 artists, the present is without delay too huge and too slim. “Center East” is one thing of a misnomer; the web site states that the present focuses on “girls artists who had been born or dwell in what can broadly be termed Islamic societies” — although that isn’t fairly appropriate both, because it contains artists from Israel (two Palestinian residents of Israel and one Jewish Israeli citizen) and Arab nations with giant Christian populations like Lebanon. Such nebulous borders permit the present to increase past the predominantly Arab “Center East” and diffuse the emphasis on part of the world with which the US has perpetuated a churning marketing campaign of belligerence and brutality. But LACMA doesn’t trouble to keep away from or interrogate the colonial designation “Center East,” both. It lumps various cultures underneath the umbrella of Islam, thus perpetuating the conflation frequent within the US of “Center Jap” and Muslim, which disregards the a number of religions practiced within the area. 

The truth is, for a present that covers such a broad swath of the world, from North Africa to Western and Central Asia, together with artists within the diaspora, the nations represented are wildly uneven. Of the 42 artists, a few dozen are from Iran. In distinction, main nations should not represented in any respect, most notably Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And whereas so many SWANA and Islamic artists lack US visibility, some names pop up repeatedly, specifically LA-based Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman and New York-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, two of the exhibition’s highest profile names within the US. 

Kezban Arca Batibeki, “Feud” (2020), combined media, acrylic, and embroidery with sequins and beads on canvas

The present was curated by Linda Komaroff, LACMA’s head of Artwork of the Center East, and supported largely by a grant from the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts, so the logic for such uneven numbers is unclear, however on the very least it signifies disorganization, if not biases, lack of analysis, dependency on what was out there, or good old style funding sources. Nonetheless, it’s onerous to shake the sense that the present was by no means actually a severe endeavor. The opening wall textual content states: “Often perceived as unvoiced and invisible, these artists are neither.” Perceived by whom? Other than the condescension, the vagueness of the assertion is nearly laughable. (It goes on to say their “story,” not “tales.”)

Most of all, practically nowhere does the present successfully shatter the stereotypes that it claims to oppose. Works like “Pink Seed” (2019), a blood-red Georgia O’Keeffe-esque wire weaving, and the associated ink on paper “The Flower Inside Me” (2019), each by Turkish artist Gülay Semercioğlu, are probably meant to problem stereotypes of feminine oppression in Islamic cultures, however on this context they really feel much less like an expression of feminist company than a revelation to a White, Western viewers that girls in Islamic nations are conscious of — and even deal with — their anatomy. The issue isn’t with the paintings itself, however with its superficial positioning, as if Islamic and Arab nations haven’t any different types of feminist activism or discourse, as if repression and patriarchy weren’t ongoing points that girls have lengthy battled. At the same time as a sound gesture of reclaiming one’s personal physique, the artworks are lower off from any bigger conversations on oppression, abuses, and different hardships — from period poverty to challenges confronted by pregnant girls and moms with out sufficient well being care, or girls with no entry to contraception and abortions. 

Equally, Iranian artist Tahmineh Monzavi’s images of a trans girl named Tina present sensitivity towards her topic however viewers get little details about the story behind the photographs. Relatively than conventional wall texts, LACMA opted for small screens on the wall with e-texts that viewers can scroll by way of, which means that the texts are separated for the corresponding works and also you get suddenly. By the point I scrolled to the texts about Tina I had practically forgotten the photographs. It’s additionally value noting that Monzavi’s photographs are among the many solely works within the present that deal with the day by day lives of trans and queer girls so audiences study nearly nothing in regards to the various levels of LGBTQ+ struggles in several nations. 

Tahmineh Monzavi, “Tina” (2010–12), inkjet print

Extra conventional portrayals of SWANA girls are additionally stripped of any essential edge. It’s onerous to glean the supposed takeaway for Palestinian (labeled Israel-born) artist Samah Shihadi’s charcoal drawing of an aged girl making rounds of bread (“Dough,” 2018) in addition to craving my Lebanese grandmother’s selfmade bread. Likewise, with out extra background, a handful of items that play on the dichotomy between custom and modernity, like Russian-born Algerian Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s “Silence Noir” (2016) — which locations stiletto heels on a prayer mat — are decreased to one-liners.  

What these works do counsel is a disconnect between the present’s purported mission to empower girls and any workable sense of accomplish that. 

Items that present some interiority, like Sara Al Haddad’s (United Arab Emirates) abject headless self-portrait sculpture made from pink and purple yarn, provide extra meals for thought and lots of wealthy, understated works deserve extra consideration than the curation invitations. However, total, the idea of empowerment comes throughout like jargon from a boardroom. Possibly it might be empowering to see an image of a lady filling out a US census kind with a field for SWANA as an alternative of 1 that forces her to establish as White, however that doesn’t exist but. For now, selecting works that foreground girls artists’ narratives and self-definitions would at the very least be illuminating to US viewers, if not particularly empowering. 

It’s not LACMA’s accountability to symbolize each attainable id. However I left the present feeling that I had encountered a picture of “Center Jap girls” assembled by and for White People, regardless of how real every particular person work could be. What I didn’t see was a mirrored image of most of the SWANA and diaspora girls I’ve identified all through my life, together with my grandmother, aunts, and prolonged household; of ladies responding to their vilification in North America and Europe since 9/11 and extra just lately; of all that defining oneself as a lady can embody. Or of an actual raison d’être for the present. 

Laila Shawa, “Disposable Our bodies 4” (2011), model, combined media, and ammunition
Yasmine Nasser Diaz, “Hanna bint (daughter of) Ghamar” (2018), neon
Gülay Semercioğlu, “Pink Seed” (2019), wire, screw, and wooden
Sara Al Haddad, “self portrait” (2011), yarn, pins, and cotton
Manal AlDowayan, The Alternative III” (2005), gelatin silver print
Set up view of Ladies Defining Ladies in Modern Artwork of the Center East and Past at LACMA. Middle: Yasmin Sinai, “The Act of Gurdafarid, the Feminine Warrior” (2015), cardboard, paper, and glue
Raeda Saadeh, “Vacuum” (2007), two-channel video set up, 17:07 min.

Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond continues on the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) by way of September 24. The exhibition was curated by Linda Komaroff.


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