(Image: “God Is Great” by Makan Emadi)
The Lebanese-born artist, who now lives in New York, insists that the taboo stems from a conservative society and not the religion. “We live in the Dark Ages right now, where everything is forbidden but it was not always like this and it will change again.”
Nada Shabout, a professor of Islamic art at the University of North Texas, agrees that Islam never took a formal position on nudity in art, and what is perceived as a religious ban is actually a cultural taboo imposed by a conservative society. “Keep Islam out of this discourse; it’s different people saying different things at different times,” she says, warning that the guise of a holy prohibition has created a great deal of misunderstanding in society.
The professor explains that no explicit ban was really required because religious leaders, very early on, barred the painting of life-like human portraits, fearing idol-worship, and the present controversy surfaced only in the 20th century when European-styled art schools popped up in the Middle East.
A 40-year-old artist, Khalid Al Tahmazi, based in Bahrain, who has done a few semi-nude paintings, wants religious leaders to stop fixating on the subject of the painting and focus on its message. “We now don’t make those pictures to worship; we just make them as expressing our thoughts and feelings,” he says.
All the same, nude paintings have appeared throughout Islamic history, according to art historian Zainab Bahrani at Columbia University, especially in manuscript illumination. “It’s not common but it does exist,” she says, clarifying that nudity for the sake of nudity isn’t permitted. “In the context of a narrative or a story, it has been possible.”
And there are the cases of two Iranians:
This Chicago-based photographer had his exhibition closed due to intense protests from Muslim students at Harper College in Illinois. “You believe that your work is protected by the freedom of speech,” says Normandie. “But it is removed the same way it would be in Iran or in the Middle East.”
His series Hejab portrays Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, doing a tango with a veiled semi-nude figure. “The clerics in Iran forced Iran and the women of Iran to a tango,” says Normandie, who has used his work to criticize the Iranian regime for what he perceives as the complete subjugation of women.
Another Iranian artist, Makan Emdai, has used his work to ridicule the objectification of women both in the West and their repression in the East. A series called Islamo-erotica depicts women wearing long black dresses in revealing pinup poses. The paintings include a female exposing her bottom while sitting in a martini glass, one straddling a gun, and another with her skirt blowing up, a la Marilyn Monroe.
“It is about sexism everywhere,” says Emadi, who is based in Los Angeles. “On one side of the world sexuality is a common selling point and in another it is denied.”
Both Iranian-American artists have considered the possibility of a fatwa being issued against them but so far have only been inundated with hate mail.
Thanks to Farhin for the link.