Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dina Adam
The International Museum of Women showcases the work of women from around the world in a compelling online exhibition that questions the meaning behind clothes.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
Clothing is deceptively topical. Beyond a utilitarian function of warmth or protection, these shapes, textures and lines are highly politicized: clothes swathe us in socially constructed meanings. For women, the infinite possibilities of dress are often reduced to a limited range of intelligible identities — we are mother, daughter, wife, wealthy or poor, masculine or feminine, modern or traditional, religious, moral or loose, etc. We dress according to the roles we play or our position in society — categories which are likewise reinforced by the way we dress.
Image and Identity: Culture Behind Clothes, a compelling multilingual (and exclusively female) exhibit recently showcased online, deconstructed the convention of clothing in an effort to explore its attached meanings. A collection of art, photographs, essays, audio and film, the cross-cultural exhibit showcased the work of women in their 20s to 40s, from different socio-economic backgrounds and from over 40 countries, including the Middle East and North Africa.
“[Our bra] is part of who we are,” begins, Brenda Jiménez, a Mexican artist, whose writing appears with a series of photographs depicting women wearing bras over their clothes. “Initially, it was designed to hide our attributes; now it is designed to show them off. We wear it when we want to feel comfortable, secure and frisky; or we just don’t wear it at allWhy [is it that] some women wear the skimpiest bikinis and feel clothed, but feel naked in their bras, or underwear for that matter.” Jiménez concludes that, while “a bra exposes part of our identity  what [we] wear does not define who [we] are. We give it meaning by wearing it and we are the ones who create the context around it.”
Through Image and Identity, artists look under and beyond the clothes they wear, toward the messages they send through them, to explore what influences their perception of beauty, how culture dictates what they wear and how they physically represent themselves to the outside world. The pieces are a poignant representation of society today and send a strong message to the world.
Mirror, Mirror on the Arab Wall
According to the curators, we live in an “age where the mirror on the wall has fast become our best friend and worst enemy.” This is especially true in an increasingly visual and technological global culture, where appearances have come to mean everything.
But in our area of the world, how does social and cultural environment influence our perception of beauty? And to what extent do we subscribe to the meanings our clothes have come to represent?
In a series of photographs, Waheeda Malullah, a Bahraini artist whose work was featured in the online exhibition, attempts to explain how she interacts with her hijab.
“When I was a young girl, every morning before school my mother would tie my hair with a green ribbon. Every time I left the house, I would take it out and leave my hair hanging. When I was in the fourth grade, I started to wear a hijab as ordered by my sister, Maryam, who was only one year older than me! I used to wear the hijab in my own way, open on the sides but still covering my hair, the way men wear their shumagg or headdress. At that time, I was young and I wasn’t doing it to rebel.
“From an artistic point, these images of women and girls in hijab are unrealistic, sarcastic and playful. I try to use the hijab as a tool for expression. To me these images are alive and meaningful and a new way to answer questions and contradictions about the hijab,” says Malullah, commenting on her photos, one of which features a girl with a pair of jeans wrapped like a hijab on her head.
According to Heba Farid, an Egyptian artist whose work was also displayed on the website, women in the region, or at least here, have not yet been able to fully step outside their clothes to question them.
“Obviously, the ‘woman debate’ has been going on in Egypt for the last century, but I find that, in general, women are still too insecure to be able to make visible their struggles, especially through the visual arts,” Farid writes. “They fear backlash, and they are afraid to challenge the status quo religiously and politically.”
Farid is currently working on a piece entitled “The Archeology of the Female History” in which she aims to portray the last five generations of women in her family as ultra-modern in battling their unique struggles, juxtaposing them to the middle-class “modern” Egyptian woman of today.
Aida Eltorie, a correspondent at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art and a board member of the Arts Council Egypt (ACE), co-curated Image and Identity’s Egyptian sub-section. Her main concern in the project was tailoring the exhibition to relate to an Egyptian audience.
“Certain directions needed to be modified in order to cater the work to a Middle Eastern atmosphere,” she says. “[This atmosphere] is not concerned with perms and face-lifts as much as sexual harassment cases and forms of beautifications women in Egypt share in common amongst themselves.
“What characterizes the artists are the personal statements they form in order to give voice and identity to themselves,” she explains. “Their identities might help encourage other women in other parts of the world to share their experiences by either relating or learning from the images and identities of other cultures.”
The Bigger Picture
Showcasing art exhibits online “provides a virtual service of global attention in a rapid digital age,” says Eltorie. In addition to increased exposure, the internet also makes it easier to recruit artists around the world, which was an important aspect in a multi-cultural project such as Image and Identity.
“While some artists were [initially] hesitant to feature their work online, I think [that] looking at how professional and non-commercial our website is, it gives them a sense of community to see their work displayed along with other women from all over the world,” says the exhibit’s editorial manager, Indian-born Sadaf Siddique, put in charge of collecting content in Arabic, English, French and Spanish.
The Image and Identity exhibit was part of a bigger project entitled Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices From a New Generation of Women, which showcases the work of artists from 207 countries around the world. In addition to the Image and Identity exhibit (which was launched on International Women’s Day of last year), Imagining Ourselves has showcased several other exhibits under the themes of Motherhood, War and Dialogue, Culture and Conflict and What Defines Your Generation?
Since its formation in 2001, Imagining Ourselves has published an anthology of its 110 best submissions, hosted numerous global events, and even has a yahoo celebrity blog (produced in association with Yahoo! Health) where prominent women write about their experiences. The project has increased global visibility of young women’s leadership, connected advocacy organizations with a broader public, and enhanced the international community among the first global generation of women.
As such, Imagining Ourselves is a platform for change — the website enables visitors to “take action,” by connecting them to local organizations related to the topics addressed. The artists hope that by sharing their images, telling their stories, and making their voices heard, their art will inspire people to take action on the social issues raised. Siddique hopes that by logging on to the site people will “Get inspired. Get involved. Take action. Get inspired by reading our stories online; get involved by joining the conversation and posting your own stories and take action through our partner organizations.”
Still, Eltorie believes there is room for development, particularly when it comes to the participation of men: “I strongly insist on the involvement of men in this conversation, because without them, women would not have a unique voice brought upon their image and identities. Men provide an ideology of women’s mysteries and revelations, and that should not go unnoticed.”
The Imagining Ourselves exhibit was hosted by the International Museum of Women (IMOW). Founded in 1985 and located in San Francisco, the museum aims to “amplify the voices of women worldwide through history, the arts and cultural programs that educate, create dialogue, build community and inspire action.” A museum “without walls,” the IMOW also hosts a speaker series titled “Extraordinary Voices, Extraordinary Change,” an online membership program on art and education, and monitored live dialogues plus real-time interaction through chat rooms.
Image and Identity lasted until September with sub-themes like “Custom and Costume,” and “Beneath the Clothes” launching every two weeks. The Imagining Ourselves exhibit will continue running until December before wrapping up with an online film festival. et
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