ARTISTS INVESTIGATE VEILING AT THE DE SAISSET MUSEUM

by Lauren Baines

In the name of comfort, protection, modesty, privacy or secrecy, humans have covered and clothed themselves in various fashions since the beginning.  Yet misunderstandings and the growing tensions of the last decade have more than ever negatively charged the veiling of bodies, specifically the covering of female heads and torsos.  Jennifer Heath’s traveling exhibition, The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces, aims to bring to light the tradition of veiling and dispel negative connotations and deeply rooted ignorance.

Entry to "The Veil" at the de Saisset Museum

Entry to "The Veil" at the de Saisset Museum

The exhibition, featuring thirty-six works, serves as a visual essay, introducing audiences not only to the long history of covering the body and the parallels between manifestations of concealment in different cultures and religions, but also to how misrepresentation of the Islamic veil and eastern cultures in American cinema (and other cultural outputs) resulted in erroneous beliefs and misunderstandings that continue to permeate the American psyche today.

MaryTuma: Homes for the Disembodied, 2006

MaryTuma: "Homes for the Disembodied," 2006

Mary Tuma’s Homes for the Disembodied (2006) hangs in the entry way – the looming presence of five 15’ tall black robes made from 50 meters of continuous fabric conceal areas of the gallery while demanding one’s attention.  Quite the opposite of the veil that serves to remove attention and attraction, these draping figural vestiges cannot be ignored.  Yet the presence afforded by their size is softened by the sheer fabric and their fragile, inert state.  Despite the ominous and somber feeling, Tuma’s Homes addresses the strength of Palestinian women, while serving as an ideal starting point to Heath’s investigation of the many facets and sides to the issue of veiling.

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards," 2007

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards," 2007

Clearly meant to spark dialogue, Visible and Invisible Spaces has been described as “a visual companion to Heath’s edited volume, The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.” Unfortunately, one may not be able to fully navigate the artworks and their commentary on practices and beliefs without this anthology, or a background in art history, feminism, politics or sociology. As such, the de Saisset Museum proves an ideal venue.  Housed on the Santa Clara University campus, and committed to engaging audiences and providing educational tools, the de Saisset helps bring the works into context and to an audience that is ready and able to evaluate them. Nonetheless, even the “unprepared” viewer can access the themes that run throughout the exhibition and leave with a better understanding of their role in forming today’s relations. Veiling has a long history beyond Islamic tradition and there are many parallels between Judeo-Christian concealment and that of Islam. Coverings of any kind lead onlookers to definitions and assumptions, yet underneath all the layers there is a common humanity. Identity can easily be “formed” or suggested through attire, but this literally and figuratively exists only as the surface. (Heath also aims to demonstrate that the veil exists in Nature – as wings, fur, and other coverings – but her other theses prove more prominent in the artworks exhibited.)

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards" ("Salome" detail), 2007

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards" ("Salome" detail), 2007

This is not to say, however, that the works of art purely function as didactic tools and do not stand on their own artistic merit.  Quite the opposite is true.  Elizabeth Bisbing’s Veil Cards (2007) is both a thought-provoking work that sparks dialogue on identity formation, and a wonderfully crafted and intricately beautiful series of collages that entices lingered viewing.  Comprised of a centralized “Little Betty Jane” character (a nude adolescent) surrounded by eleven individually framed scenes, Veil Cards exists as an updated paper dolls exercise.  The eleven cards each feature a different adult identity that Little Betty Jane could grow up to assume – ranging from geisha to monk, from saint to Salome, these prospects hint at the underlying humanity beneath all personas, the role of choice and the environment in shaping an individual, and the power of attire to direct or inform identity in the eye of the beholder.

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards" ("Salome" detail), 2007

Elizabeth Bisbing, "Veil Cards" ("Monk" detail), 2007

Five works by Helen Zughaib assist viewers’ comprehension of the role familiarity plays in perception.  For many individuals in American culture, the hijab or abaya continue to carry a label of “other” and thus the covering of heads and torsos in black garments elicits a sense of foreign identity.  Zughaib counters this unfamiliarity by depicting robed and covered females in the style of identifiable artists.  The woman in Abaya Lichenstein (2005-2006) declares “I am not who you think I am,” while a Mondrian-esque woman emerges from her geometric background and a Picasso-esque woman weeps.  Found in these easily recognizable contexts and structures, the clothed women seem less foreign and Zughaib accomplishes a collapse of psychological distance.  Viewers who might see “difference” between themselves and a figure in an abaya are forced to re-evaluate this spectrum.

Helen Zughaib, Installation view of "Abaya," 2005-2006

Helen Zughaib, Installation view of "Abaya," 2005-2006

In a similar vein, Bay Area artist Victoria May’s Headgear series investigates how convictions influence one’s approach to the world and can even manifest physically.  The five Headgear works exhibited, including the Bodhisattva and the Worrier, reveal the uniforms and attire we associate with different lifestyles.  Additionally, the draped and wrapped pieces of organza, looking at once dated, like medieval undergarments, also suggest the theatrics of identity.

Victoria May, "theBodhisattva," from the "Headgears" series

Victoria May, "theBodhisattva," from the "Headgears" series

While this call to re-examine beliefs, and presumably arrive at greater understanding and acceptance, permeates the exhibition, Heath does not offer direct commentary on many of the bigger socio-political issues linked to the veil in today’s society.  Some of the artworks, however, provide more concrete, and at times dissident, opinions. Christine Breslin’s Beyond the Veil: Interviews with Young Muslim Women (2006) offers a clear voice to the choice to wear the abaya or hijab. Whereas Sama Alshaibi’s Witness (2006) from her Birthright series addresses the forced migrations, integrations and changes of a people and a culture during the formation of new states.  Consequently, Visible and Invisible Spaces works to create a dialogue – one that engages viewers and allows them to navigate through various aspects of a history and a tradition.  The de Saisset’s message board affirms that this dialogue is essential as gallery visitors have left divergent messages: some patrons finding the exhibition positive and empowering, while others leave “saddened” by the state of affairs.  And as one message clearly illustrates, the issue of the veil in American society cannot be addressed without looking at the veil abroad.  This visitor, who once lived in Iran at time when the veil was “mandated and brutally enforced,” could not help but see the veil as a “sign of oppression.”  We must understand and be respectful that even today the veil can hold many different meanings.

Lauren Baines is a professional dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area, Managing Director for Cardboard Box Theatre Project, and the Education & Arts Programs Coordinator at the Montalvo Arts Center.

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