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Drawing the veil

Drawing the veil

Issue 4 Mar / Apr 2004

A dazzling brass lantern, vibrant throws and an assortment of miniature camels create a decidedly Arabic ambience in the drawing room of Zineb Sedira. “Yes, the camels - my son and I like to collect those,” she smiles. Born in Paris in 1963 of Arab-Algerian parents, Sedira moved to London in 1987. She attended the Chelsea School of Art, Central St Martins and the Slade School of Art where she received her MA. Since then she has done various exhibitions across the UK looking at the representation of women and the ideas surrounding the way they are portrayed.

In 1997, Sedira began an exhibition on veiling that was recently being displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. “This actually came as a reaction to the way the media portrays women,” she says. “I was challenging all the Oriental images that were present in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, especially images that were brought back from Algeria by the French which either showed Algerian women as sexual, sensual or oppressed. So I wanted to portray a different image of African people and ethnic minorities presented in western societies.” Perhaps highlighting just how powerful the exhibition is in this respect, Professor Stuart Hall, Chairman of the Institute of Visual Arts, has dedicated the Veil Exhibition to the distinguished professor, political advocate and famed writer of Orientalism, Edward Said, who died in October last year.

Sedira is emphatic about how often Muslim or Arab women are misrepresented or misused in the western media. “It was interesting to talk to my mother’s side and her feelings on wearing the veil, even though Algeria has quite a secular history in relation to the veil. Algerians wear a white veil as opposed to the black veils that are favoured all over the Middle East. The Algerian veil is known for its symbol of nationality. During the Algerian war, men were checked at French checkpoints to see if they had any guns, yet Algerian women were never stopped because they were wearing the hijab and were seen as being sacred. The Algerians won the battle and ended 132 years of French rule. The activity of Algerian women during the war was very significant; they carried the French defeat and it belies the idea of the submissive exotic Muslim woman.”

So, does Sedira think the image of Muslim women in France is much more negative than elsewhere? “Yes and no,” she replies. “I think France has a very secular understanding of western culture because they have colonised so many western African countries and it still has a very strong link. I’d also thought that France had a  better understanding and connection with the Muslim world that England hasn’t got. Having said that, now a lot of people ask me about the hijab issue and I find it difficult to answer because on one level I think there is more understanding in England; children learn about Islam in school, women wear the hijab and Muslims observe Ramadan and celebrate Eid. In France of course you can’t do that. You have centuries and centuries of a society that is secular. If you start on the basis of no religion in schools, then the same is for Islam, the same for Judaism, the same for any religion.

That’s why they find it difficult to take on, because ten years ago there weren’t that many veiled women in France. Having said that, even though I understand that, I think women have a right to wear what they want. Yet the message has been very negative from the French, basically that you have to adapt and you have to integrate.”

The veil Exhibition has been in the Warsaw Gallery and in Liverpool before being exhibited in Oxford. “When I started the theme of veiling, I showed some people in the art world and we began our work,” says Sedira. “A lot of people think it started after 9/11, but no it happened before that. For me, the reason I wanted to do an exhibition on veiling was because I was getting really frustrated and tired with the way veiling was presented. I also realised that there were a lot of artists with a Muslim or Asian background who used veiling in their artwork and all of them were good. They were all challenging society’s idea of the veil. Some looked at oppression. In their lives it was probably true at some level, but I wasn’t interested in that. Then I drew out a list with the help of the other curators of artists.”

An interesting piece of Sedira’s is Self Portrait or the Trinity. The work is actually Sedira herself draped in a white veil, with images taken from the front and behind. “I wanted to draw the relationship between Mary, who was one of the first icons to wear the veil, and her purity and the connection of veiling,” she explains.

Initially the exhibition started with artists from Muslim backgrounds dealing with the Muslim veil, and then it was opened up to look at different types of veils, or rather different representations. “We had some Afro-Caribbean’s doing some work about the male Black body and they way it’s represented. Some of the exhibition was about the Palestinian Christians and their experiences and pain. For instance, one artist left Palestine and went to live in Riyadh. When she was on the plane to Saudi Arabia, well you can’t enter without a burqua or with the magazines full of fashion models and her mum was going to take it away, but she stopped her and started colouring all the areas where skin showed on the models so she could take it through. So she did a piece on that and it was very interesting as what remained were just abstract arms and legs.”

Interestingly, the exhibition has the photo of the Statue of Liberty with a burqua done by the AES group, a Russian-Jewish group that was done well before 9/11. “The work was done to show the fear of Islam in the west. So the exhibition looks at veiling, but a different kind of veiling. There are different types of artists; five or seven artists have looked at the typical kind of veil, most of them probably Iranian artists. We have a section looking at the Battle of Algiers, for the reasons I explained before.”

Certainly the exhibition has achieved success and invoked positive responses. “In Warsaw, some girls in hijab told me they were excited by the exhibition as it challenged preconceived ideas about the hijab. A lot of people come up to me saying they feel educated, that they realise things they didn’t before and that’s when an exhibition starts working. I think the catalogue is even more powerful than the exhibition because it has some very strong extracts from different writers about how they feel about how the veil has been represented and some reference to 9/11. If you’re an artist who puts veiling into art, you may or may not be seen as someone who looks at female Arab gender. The other thing interesting about the show is that you have men looking at veiling, so it was a whole mishmash. I think it was important to do it like that because if it had just been about the Muslim veil and artists from the Muslim Diaspora the focus would have been very narrow.”

In February the exhibition moved to Stockholm. What about France? “They haven’t agreed to anything. France is funny in that way about art, they really hate themes, whether it’s about veiling or anything else. Sweden was more interested in the work. It’s not just about beauty, but the artwork also has some kind of political message.

Sedira’s enjoying her time with her two children and expecting the arrival of a third child. It’s not surprising therefore that she’s considering family and cultural roots for her next project. “I’m interested in the idea of going back to the home country, I’m kind of turning my journey back from London to Paris to Algeria. I want to look at relationships between women in Arab and Asian culture. So I’m doing a lot of work involving my mother and my daughter. As the bearer of children, the woman is the bearer of tradition and identity.”

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