ART REVIEW | Under the veil, feminist visions

In a new art exhibit at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, a group of Muslim women artists tactfully inverted Western stereotypes about women in the Middle East. The exhibit, “Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World,” which opened on Sept. 1, displays art from the collection of the Royal Society of Fine Arts of Jordan. Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan created the show and it is sponsored by Yale’s Council on Middle East Studies.

“[All 51 artists] have had different life experiences, and they come from more than 20 different countries,” Queen Rania Al-Abdullah said at the launch of the tour in Greece. “But they have something in common that is more important than any dissimilarity. That ‘something’ is the essence of Islamic art, of all art.”

After walking through the exhibit, it becomes clear that the artists are fighting the stereotypical portrayals of veiled women in the Islamic world. The veil that is being broken in this exhibit isn’t the one imposed by their religion — it is the one created by Western society’s distortion of Muslim women’s lives.

“Yale University’s showing of ‘Breaking the Veils’ is that rare international event in which the arts, academics, and diplomacy seamlessly merge,” Jasmine Melvin-Koushki, the show’s curator, said in the Yale University Press release.

The message is clear by the end of the line of paintings: Muslim women, veiled or unveiled, have strong opinions and vivid imaginations in all arenas, such as politics, love and family. With a balanced mixture of vibrant, lighthearted pieces, and darker, more serious ones, the focus is on each individual artist’s perspective on the role of women in the Middle East.

Exposing America and other Western cultures to a personal and intimate display of women’s lives in the Eastern world, the work is important for its ability to break down common misconceptions.

There is a passion behind each stroke of paint that, in effect, transforms the entryway where the exhibit is housed at the Institute of Sacred Music into a space with emotional possibilities.

The exhibit featured a variety of artists, including Mounira Musseibeh, a Palestinian artist, educated in Paris at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Her painting, titled “Four Arab Women,” features four pairs of eyes shining through veils looking back at a half-closed door. The painting forces the audience to question whether the women are being excluded from the freedom awaiting them behind the door, or if they are seeking refuge from the painful reality of what lies behind it. The painting also displayed a common feature of many of the pieces decorating the hallway — a large focus on eyes to tell the story of the painting.

Another intriguing piece called “Games, Toys, Children War, Love Series” by Tomur Atagok, a Turkish artist, reveals dissected and fragmented figures that are turned into symbols of instability. The distorted images are intended to evoke rapid societal change, and the paintings demand political reflection.

Though the subject of the works ranged from expressions of love to futuristic science fiction scenes, it is these political interpretations that resonate most with the viewer.

The exhibit will be on view through Dec. 12 and is open to the public.

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