In 'The Veil,' an exhibition of photographs, the curly haired, highly talented Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy attempts to challenge the stereotype of the headscarf as being exclusively a symbol of female oppression.
A series of compelling and highly stylized photographs currently on display at Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus captures the veil adorned by women across cultures, from Indian to the Middle East.
El-Tantawy’s photos recount her personal experience with the headscarf, which was worn with pride by the strong and feisty women in her family. Meanwhile, her exhibition puts forward an alternative identity for the veil; an aesthetically striking and colourful symbol that transcends cultural differences.
While contemporary Arab artists and activists are inclined to portray a certain sense of intrepid rebellion against the veil, regarding it as a symbol of tyranny and oppression, El-Tantawy’s collection steers away from the popular “Why do they hate us?” rhetoric.
Recent examples of artwork that rebels against the veil include; Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdalla’s daring artwork exhibited in October 2012 in Riyadh’s first contemporary art gallery, Alaan Artspace, in which she challenges the identity of Saudi women through placing them fully covered in black burqas (loose gowns covering the whole body, with holes for the eyes, worn by Muslim women, particularly in India and Pakistan) against chaotic backgrounds and driving little pink cars. In an exhibition entitled 'Tank Girl,' held in a Cairo gallery last March, Egyptian artist Nadine Hammam exhibited a collection of brightly coloured nude paintings that sought to challenge the confines of Egypt’s patriarchal society.
Aliaa Elmahdy’s nude photos represent a more direct attack on female identity in Egypt and the Arab world. And of course, the artwork that appeared alongside Mona El-Tahawy’s much debated Foreign Policy article, “Why do they hate us?” which depicted a nude woman fully painted in black paint except for her eyes, is also reflective of a tendency to demonise the veil as a symbol of religious and cultural oppression within the Arab world's art scene.
However, in 'The Veil,' which opened 14 January in Dubai, London-based Egyptian photojournalist and artist Laura El-Tantawy, who grew up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, presents a unique take on the veil. The young artist endeavoured to challenge the typical representation of the veil as a symbol of hate and repression, and instead presents a substitute paradigm that characterizes the headscarf as a beautiful force that could surpass cultural and religious boundaries.
El-Tantawy unveils the motivations behind her artwork in an email interview with Ahram Online.
Ahram Online (AO): 'The Veil' appears to defy stereotypes of the headscarf as an oppressive symbol, and instead offers a new image of the veil as merely a part of Muslim women’s wardrobe; was that the purpose of this exhibition?
Laura El-Tantawy (LT): 'The Veil' attempts to showcase the veil as something that is not just limited to Muslim women, which is the stereotype. All the way from India to the Middle East, women have traditionally worn some form of head cover due to tradition or cultural norms, not necessarily religion. Also, Catholic nuns cover their hair.
My series on the veil stems from my own memory of the veil growing up in a moderate Muslim family where the majority of the women adorn a head cover. The women in my family are some of the strongest, independent and strong-willed women I know. I also wanted to show the veil as something feminine, colourful and beautiful.
AO: Much of your photography projects take the form of a journey of discovery, such as 'In the Shadows of the Pyramids,' when in 2005 you started to document the lives of Egyptians and in the process understand your “home." How has your personal perception of the veil changed over the years, and how is it reflected in this project?
LT: I look at it now as something that should not be judged as much as understood. I think people often judge too quickly and don't ask the right questions to understand. This work has helped me do that, especially in realizing that the veil can bring women and cultures together; it doesn't have to divide them.
AO: Some of your photos depict a haze of multi-colour veils, while others capture women covered in black abayas (traditional dresses). Can you describe the technique you used to produce these photos?
LT: It's not much of a technique as it is a style that you can probably see in my work; I take pictures when I feel, not when I see. This is a very important part of the process for me, to make an image that captures an emotion. This does not always work and in some situations the image is just the image, but I know my most successful pictures are ones that convey an emotion, not just show something.
AO: Some of the photos in your exhibition were shot in Egypt and some in India, why did you choose to present a cross-cultural spectacle through 'The Veil?'
LT: Because it was important for me; part of what I wanted to show about the veil is that it crosses cultural and religious boundaries. The West often points a finger at Islam and Muslim women as the only ones who wear a veil. This comes with some perceptions of oppression and lack of independence. The intention behind 'The Veil' is to counter this and present a different argument that perhaps will stimulate people to think about it.
AO: Because of your sophisticated technique, which gives significant texture to each of your photographs, your work appears to subvert realism. Some of your photos resemble snapshots from a dream. Who inspires you in the field of visual arts and photography?
LT: I am inspired by a number of photographers whose work crosses the border between reality and mystery or whose work is very strong compositionally. My favourite photographers and artists are Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Miguel Rio Branco, Michael Ackerman, Rebecca Norris Webb, Alex Webb and Christopher Morris. I also draw a lot of inspiration from music and poetry.
AO: Your portfolio is quite dynamic; it includes a wide range of projects, such as 'In the Shadows of the Pyramids' shot in Egypt, and 'I’ll Die For You,' which tackles suicide in rural India. When did you first discover your passion for photography?
LT: I started working with photography immediately after completing my university degree in the United States. I had a dual major in journalism and political science, but fell in love with photography as an artistic form of expression with limitless boundaries. I have been taking pictures since 2002. My work is generally focused on social issues, especially those pertaining to my own background.
'The Veil' runs at Gulf Photo Plus until 18 February
Street 8, Alserkal Ave, Al Quoz, Dubai, UAE