The veil remains a powerful image in the canon of contemporary art and photography produced over the past thirty years by artists from Middle East and Islamicate descent. Images or allusions to veiling are used in a variety of mediums to convey a variety of messages, personal and universal, that encourage viewers to think critically about how the veil was presented in the past and how it is understood in the present. From art works that challenge Orientalist stereotypes, such as the art by Houria Niati, to images that use the veil to comment on issues of identity and belonging, such as in the work of Zineb Sedira, the veil continues to be re-Oriented as a symbol and means of expression well into the contemporary period.

Contemporary Artistic Voices of Resistance

No To Torture (1982)

Houria Niati (Algerian, b. 1948). Location Unknown.

Houria Niati, an artist of Algerian origin, is well known for her visual art as well as her performance pieces.  One of her installations that is both visual and performative is her No To Torture, a set of five paintings based off of Eugène Delacroix’s painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment.  The paintings, four individual figures and a central painting that parallels Delacroix’s, are exhibited as a group while a recording of Niati singing traditional Algerian poems and songs plays in the background. In the central image of the series of five paintings, Niati depicts four figures, stripped of the clothing, jewelry, and other details that conventionally define North African harems in the Orientalist tradition. Devoid of any detail, the figures are painted in the same positions as Delacroix’s Algerian women, but in bright bold colors, their faces obscured by brush strokes. The effect is startling, and the objectification of the women, who look as though they are being viewed by a heat sensor, faces obscured by a large X, a cube dripping paint, and a vortex of muddled colors, is evident. The lack of detail dramatizes the women’s position as objects by literally and metaphorically unveiling the Orientalist stereotype to expose the figures underneath. As such, the title of the work, “No to Torture,” may be understood as Niati’s refusal to torture her figures with Orientalist stereotypes. At the same time, abstract figures might also  call attention to the post colonial suffering  of Algerian women and the exploitation of women everywhere.

Lalla Essaydi

Converging Territories #30 (2004)

Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan, b. 1958). Ackland Art Museum (Chapel Hill, NC, USA).

Lalla Essaydi is a Moroccan-born artist living in the United States whose work reflects her experience living and traveling between cultures. Returning to Morocco to photograph the Converging Territories series at her childhood home,  the artist draped both her house and her models in white cloth before writing her private poems in a self-taught calligraphy which is deliberately indecipherable to readers of Arabic. Converging Territories #30 features four figures who are clothed and veiled to different degrees but covered from head to toe in henna. The choice of writing in henna as a medium holds a symbolic distinction in and of itself. Henna is a paint used to decorate women’s hands and feet for major celebrations such as weddings or the birth of a child with arabesque and floral motifs. The use of henna, a women’s decorative art, to create calligraphy, a traditionally religious and meaningful high art form typically produced by men, adds a subversive twist to the images of women.  Though the women are inside the house and the photograph, they are nonetheless able to express themselves by “speaking” through the words written in henna, wearing the text as a second protective veil. The written vocalization of self suggests there is a complexity to Arab female identity and the women’s place in a traditional household.

Zineb Sedira

Self Portraits or the Virgin Mary (2000)

Zineb Sedira (French/Algerian, b. 1963). Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK.

Zineb Sedira, born in France and working in London, is a multimedia artist whose work frequently treats questions of identity formation. The title of Sedira’s photographic triptych (set of three art works presented as a single work), Self Portraits or the Virgin Mary is as intriguing as the work of art itself. Is the figure in the photographs the artist, cloaked in a white hijab, or is it the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus? The long white cloth and ethereal lighting suggests both the purity of the Virgin Mary as well as the images of veiled Algerian from colonial postcards in white veils that protected their privacy.  By photographing herself in the white studio devoid of any tell-tale details that could potentially give the figure an identity outside the image’s title, Sedira enables—or perhaps challenges—the viewer to form an impression of who the figure might be or represent by leaving the white veil as a blank page for the viewer to fill in.

Ghada Amer

Burqa/Borqa (1997)

Ghada Amer (Egyptian, b. 1963). Location Unknown.

East meets West in Egyptian-born Ghada Amer’s Borqa, a face veil (niqab) that is decorated with Bayeux French lace that is in turn decorated with Arabic calligraphy. Amer employs the feminine arts of lace-making and embroidery to write in Arabic the definition of the word “fear” on the lace. This decoration and the use of the niqab as a canvas has multiple meanings. First, Amer, who grew up in France and currently resides in New York, reacts to the fear of being forced to wear a burqa upon her return to her increasingly conservative country of birth, Egypt. Yet at the same time, Amer transforms the niqab, an article of clothing that symbolizes modesty by hiding the wearer’s face, into a sexy piece of clothing by adding lace to the niqab as a lingerie-like detail that recall the sensuality of the veil from Orientalist painting and photography.

Ghada Amer

I ❤ Paris/ I [Love] Paris (1991)

Ghada Amer (Egyptian, b. 1963). Location Unknown.

In a series of six photographs, Amer and two models play tourist as they pose with famous Parisian monuments. Here, like the millions of sightseers who visit Paris every year they take a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, including the top of the tower’s spire in their photograph. But unlike many of these tourists, Amer and her companions are wearing black burqas that form silhouettes that unsettle the traditional tourist photo, their faces shrouded in anonymity by their veils.  Though the women’s poses in other images such as when they relax by a fountain or watch a carousel might appear as innocent actions, the women’s lack of identity seems to dehumanize them against the traditional French backgrounds, illustrating the decades-long division that has existed between France and its growing Muslim population.

Shadi Ghadirian

Qajar Series (1998-2001)

Shadi Ghadirian (Iranian, 1974-present). Location Unknown. 

Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian’s Qajar Series is a mix of modern and traditional elements that combine to create a set of thought-provoking images. The Qajar Series is a set of 10 images of female models wearing traditional clothing and veils and posing in front of the painted backgrounds of palace scenes, popular during the nineteenth-century Qajar period of Iranian history. The subjects, photographed in the nineteenth-century style, would recreate the two-century older images if not for Ghadirian’s placement of contemporary items such as a boom box, soda can, or vacuum cleaner in the photographs. The effect of these items in each photograph has a startling effect, creating a sort of time warp that shatters the attempted “timelessness” of the Oriental woman by juxtaposing the traditional background and costumes with modern props.

Irving Penn

2 Guedras (1971)

Irving Penn (American, 1917-2009). Private Collection. 

Noted American fashion photographer Irving Penn was best known for his work for Vogue magazine, and his image of two Moroccan guedras is part of a large series of ethnographic-esque portraits of persons from world cultures. Although this photograph is reminiscent of the staged colonial postcards of his European predecessors, Penn preferred photographing his subjects in a studio for fear of creating natural scenes that could appear contrived.  This image comes from his travels in southern Morocco when he invited local Goulimine dancers called guedras to pose for him. Unlike the photographs of his colonial predecessors, Penn’s work attracted the attention and respect of the local population who were intrigued by the American’s photographic portraits. The guedra dancers pictured are seated in their dance costumes. According to Penn, the dance began with the women kneeling, their black veils wrapped around them hiding their faces and jewelry. Moving to the beat of a local drum, they would gradually rise, crying out as they removed their veils in a frenzied local dance whose meanings were not communicated to Penn. It is important to note, as Penn did, that the women he photographed were Berber, not Arab, and “customarily [went] unveiled,” thus, these veils differ from the religious veils of Muslim women and are better understood to be a local ceremonial dress.