East is East and West is West and where art is concerned there is no doubt that they are just alike only different. Patriarchal views know no borders so that the challenges that face women artists in all genres continuously slip across physical as well as temporal divides. The artists of the Middle East featured in the current “Fertile Crescent” exhibits organized by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art face obstacles reminiscent of those that have stood in the way of countless women artists in the West. Discouraged from pursuing their art, relegated to the status of lesser merit, dismissed as merely female, women have and continue to push the boundaries and challenge their society’s perception of their works.
When traveling in the region frequently over the past few years, it is impossible for me not to feel the vibration of gender discrimination even if I have never been an overt feminist here at home. While my travels have taken me to a few of the more secular countries, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, I have seen efforts, both subtle and overt, of female artists to express themselves.
The most obvious outlets have been in what could be dismissed as “crafts.” But such a label cannot hold up long against the undeniable skill and creativity that is displayed in shops such as Anat located on a Street Called Straight in old Damascus. Does the shop still exist? Insh’allah I hope so. This store exhibits textiles so ethereal that they float before your eyes; light from stained glass made tangible. Both in traditional motifs and contemporary images, the uses of color distinguish the various items from mere objects to wear or hang. They are statements of women’s unabashed experimentation of form and light. I wear many of those works of art and relish that their existence shows that the feminine artist is alive and kicking.
Another example of a homegrown voice for women artists in Syria is the website www.creativesyria.com. Among its focus on history and art are highlights of works by contemporary artists such as Sara Shamma and Kinda Hibrawi. Their works have attained international recognition.
Istanbul Modern, the relatively new museum located on the Golden Horn, showcased women artists just recently in its exhibit Dream and Reality, which ran to the end of 2011. This show celebrated contemporary women artists in concert with their Ottoman predecessors, women who ran away to become professional artists or who struggled at home against chauvinistic attitudes. Mary Cassatt could find much to talk about over tea with these trailblazers.
Women in Turkey have also been in the forefront of the movement to revive the art of the Iznik tile. One such artist has a shop in a quiet loggia by the mosque called Little Aya Sophia in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. This tile maker experiments with non-traditional colors such as canary yellow at the same time as she strives to learn the skills to create again the luminous quality of works faithful to the originals. This courtyard is also home to several shops where women artists display works that take the traditional in new directions. One manuscript illuminator uses contemporary themes in her highly stylized paintings.
We like to think that the enlightened West has “gotten over” the gender gap in so many ways. Yet we still distinguish a work as being done by a woman artist while not calling attention to the sex of a male counterpart. While, unconscious or not, the gender gap still exists for us, its existence is more palpable for the artists being celebrated at Rutgers. They face the overt attempts to cover the artist’s eye. But vision cannot be eradicated. It moves across those same borders as bias; it runs deep to other outlets; it springs forth even if it forces its way to the surface many miles from home.
Central New Jersey is a long way from Egypt or Kuwait. But here fruit such as satire of the status quo can flourish in a fertile environment.
Gender, Art, and Society
Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Weekdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends by appointment through Sunday, September 9. Artists: Jananne Al-Ani, Fatima Al Qadari, Monira Al Qadari, Ofri Cnaani, Diana El Jeiroudi, Ayana Friedman, Ariane Littman, Ebru Ozsecen, Laila Shawa, Nil Yalter.
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Through Sunday, January 13. Artists: Parastou Forouhar, Mona Hatoum, Sigalit Landau, Shirin Neshat, Laila Shawa.
Bernstein Gallery at Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment through Friday, October 19. Artists: Negar Akhami, Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Zeina Barakeh, Ofri Cnaani, Parastou Forouhar, Shadi Ghadirian.
Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries, Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers University, 8 Chapel Drive, George Street at Nichol Avenue, New Brunswick. Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends by appointment through Friday, September 28. Artists: Fatimah Tuggar.
Thursday, October 4 through Thursday, November 1. Artists: Ariane Littman, Lebowitz Visiting Artist in Residence.
Friday, November 9, through Monday, December 17. Artists: Shahzia Sikander.
Paul Robeson Gallery, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, October 4, through Wednesday, November 21. Artists: Shiva Ahmadi, Monira Al Qadari, Nezaket Ekici, Hayv Kahraman, Efrat Kedem
Memory of Here, Memory of There: Fertile Crescent Dialogues, West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. Wednesdays to Fridays, noon to 6 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, September 2, through Friday, October 12. Artists: Samira Abbassy, Nadia Ayari, Milcah Bassel, Dahlia Elsayed, Armita Raafat, Emna Zghal
The El Nafeza Papermaking Project: A Collaboration between Art and the Environment, East Brunswick Public Library, 2 Civic Center Drive, East Brunswick. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 1 to 5 p.m., Tuesday, September 4, through Saturday, September 29.
Farah Ossouli: Ars Poetica, Orbit I Gallery, Paul Robeson Galleries, Rutgers/Newark campus, 350 Martin Luther King Boulevard, Newark. Mondays through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday, September 4, through Wednesday, January 9, 2013. Artist: Farah Ossouli.
Two Solo Shows: Mary Cross: Photos of Egyptand Ifat Shatzky: Soil-Adama, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Mondays through Thursdays 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays 1 to 6 p.m., Saturday, September 15, through Monday, December 31.
Borderlands, New Brunswick Public Library, 60 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Mondays through Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 1 to 5 p.m., Tuesday, October 9, through Monday, December 3. Artists: Linda Bock-Hinger, Sheetal Bagewadi, Natalia Kadish, Mediha Sandhu, Ela Shah, Tamara Woronczuk.
Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection, College of New Jersey Art Gallery, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 3 p.m.; and by appointment, Wednesday, October 24, through Sunday, December 16.
Artists: Chandrima Bhattacharyya, Sakti Burman, Arpana Caur, Shanti Dave, M.F. Husain, Krishen Khanna, Seema Kohli, K.S. Kulkarni, Bari Kumar, Nalini Malani, Mahjabin Majumdar, Kamal Mitra, Gogi Saroj Pal, Shyamal Dutta Ray, Sadequain, G.R.Santosh, Arpita Singh, F.N. Souza, K.G. Subramanyan.
Fashioning the Cultural Impact of Islamic Diaspora, Student Center, Rutgers University, 126 College Avenue, New Brunswick. Thursday, December 6, 3 to 7 p.m. Out of the Closet: Clothes and Textiles from the Fertile Crescent; Everyday Islam
Photographs by Annanya Dasgupta; musical performance byMandinka, traditional music from Senegal; dance performance: Kathak by Courtyard Dancers Company. Nida Sajid moderates.
For more information, visit www.fertile-crescent.org.