Tin Women: Saatchi Gallery’s Newest Installation

The Saatchi Gallery’s latest exhibition Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East has received considerable media attention. Despite the overused term, the art is refreshingly original, featuring 19 artists, most of them in their twenties and thirties, from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Algeria.

Kader Attia's "Ghost." Photo via Toby Melville/Reuters.

Kader Attia's "Ghost." Photo via Toby Melville/Reuters.

Their art is raw, tender, vicious and vile. Think the Middle East is messed up? Their art is unapologetic, featuring images of homosexual naked Muslim men and Iranian prostitutes and transsexuals. “Ghost” (front view pictured left) by French- Algerian artist Kader Attia is hauntingly reminiscent of the images of women so often shown in war-torn and ravaged, destitute places that seem to comprise the Middle East now. I disagree with Adrien Serle at The Guardian, who thinks Attia’s representation of 200 kneeling veiled women is unimaginative.

At first glance, it does concede to the stereotype of the dark and lifeless Muslim woman; however, my first thought was how strikingly similar the women are to the hooded men of Abu Ghraib. In his own words, Attia says his art work is more about the experience than an object: “The shape is only necessary as a reference to its history.”

Rear view of "Ghost." Via The Saatchi Gallery.

Rear view of "Ghost." Via The Saatchi Gallery.

At first-glace perhaps, “Ghost” is too straight-forward (Serle calls it “weak, boring, stuff”), but is that so bad? Have we become so accustomed to the hidden nature of the intellectual, so cynical of the simple, so predisposed, if not unwaveringly susceptible to ulterior motives that we only accept art that is multidimensional? I say, in a world filled with conspiracy theories, why not take a moment to appreciate the palpable? Serle’s piece, like the history of western attitudes toward the Middle East, does not recognize that even after wars, innumerable death and hair-pulling complexity, genuine simplicity will always be found in the Middle East.

At the Times Online, Joanna Pitman had a more favorable review, calling Ghost “one of the most arresting” works in the exhibition. On approaching the women from behind she says,

“You expect to hear the murmur, the gentle susurration of prayer, but as you turn at the end of the room you see that these women are hollow figures, vacant shells of tin foil, each with a gaping black hole where the face should be swathed in the veil. Attia’s image of emptiness is heavily political, the shrouded, veiled, yet empty, figure of Muslim women presented as the symbol of divergent struggles over decolonisation, nationalism, revolution, Westernisation and anti-Westernisation.”

It’s interesting that Pitman recognizes their individuality, even though they are presented as uniform. It proves that it is possible to see your friend and your enemy through the same lens, both rooted in individual strength, against collective, perpetual victimization.

Note: The Times also has a slideshow of some of the other artworks on the sidebar here.

UPDATE:

Editor’s Note: Muslimah Media Watch regrets any offense caused by some of the wording in this article, which has been discussed in the comments. The wording will not be removed in the interests of transparency, but we sincerely apologize for our failure to uphold MMW’s aim of inclusivity.

  • Sobia

    Great review Yusra. But can you clarify one point for me?

    You called the art of some of the artists “vile” and then go on to talk about their art that features “images of homosexual naked Muslim men and Iranian prostitutes and transsexuals.” Just wondering where the “vile” came in. I’m assuming its in something you didn’t mention here.

    Thanks.

  • Rayhana

    “. . . however, my first thought was how strikingly similar the women are to the hooded men of Abu Ghraib . . . ”

    How interesting to hear hijab compared to the dehumanizing, demeaning garb of prisoners.

  • Melinda

    I have to second Sobia’s comment. “Think the Middle East is messed up?” is followed by the list “homosexual naked Muslim men and Iranian prostitutes and transsexuals.” Was this meant to answer the question, as in “The Middle East is more messed up than you thought”?

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    Sobia, I’m alluding to the fact that homosexuality is morally and reprehensible in the Middle East. This train of thought answers Melinda’s question too. Immediately following my sentence,”Think the Middle East is messed up?” is “Their art is unapologetic,” as in even in staunch societies there will be dissent. Perhaps you disagree, but I believe you can’t look at the homosexual and transsexual artwork without taking into account the majority sentiment- one that perceives homosexuality as vile.
    Rayhana, all the pictures I ever saw of Abu Ghraib prisoners were hooded, crouching figures. Like these women they had no face.

  • Sobia

    @Yusra:

    Thanks for the clarification. However, I am *extremely* uncomfortable with you describing homosexuality as vile, regardless of what people in the Middle East think, especially since the art was being displayed in London. You *really* should have clarified that in the post. If your comment about it was in reference to what many in the Middle East think then you really should have stated that.

    You can believe what you like about homosexuality but calling it vile on MMW just isn’t appropriate.

  • Krista

    I agree with Melinda and Sobia. I’m also concerned that post implies that the answer to “You think the Middle East is messed up?” is, as Melinda pointed out, “well, it’s even worse than you thought, and you should see their artwork!” I’m not really comfortable with how this ends up portraying the Middle East as so inherently and completely “messed up,” or as supposedly more “messed up” than other parts of the world. If we’re trying to deconstruct representation of Muslim women, I would argue that we need to be bringing more complexity into perceptions of the Middle East being “messed up,” rather than in reinforcing those perceptions.

    Maybe this isn’t how you meant to come across, but I think it’s important to be careful of reinforcing a lot of the negative and simplistic stereotypes about the Middle East that already exist.

    On the other hand, I REALLY liked the last paragraph (“It’s interesting that Pitman recognizes their individuality, even though they are presented as uniform. It proves that it is possible to see your friend and your enemy through the same lens, both rooted in individual strength, against collective, perpetual victimization.”) That’s a really cool observation.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    I don’t believe that Yusra meant to actually connect “vile” to “homosexual” in the post; when I read this, I didn’t connect the two. I read the word “vile” as her categorizing of how others might view some of the pieces in the exhibition (not any in particular), or the feeling the art meant to evoke.

    While I see the points behind the concern about “think this place is messed up?”, I read it as more of a “we’re messed up like everyone else” deal. Like, the West makes crazy art that offends people (“Piss Christ,” anyone?), and so does West Asia.

    Also, Yusra did not personally describe homosexuality as vile; she simply stated in her comment (not in her post, from my reading) the fact that homosexuality is officially and socially regarded as such in West Asia. As my media law professor stated, “It’s not libel if it’s true.” I don’t know Yusra’s personal beliefs on the LGBT Muslim community, and they’re not on trial here.

    What are everyone’s thoughts on the sculpture?

  • http://eclexia.livejournal.com polerin

    [delurk]I have to say, the phrasing of the opening paragraph really was off putting to me as a trans woman. While I agree depictions of trans-people and homosexuality can be vile, I believe it is generally the method of depiction or additional subject matter that makes it so, not that the subject is a GLBT person. Vile, messed up, and unapologetic were all linking to the end of the thought, which was “…images of homosexual naked Muslim men and Iranian prostitutes and transsexuals.” There was no segway out of that thought which would lead a reader to think that it was directed at anything other than it.

    Regardless, the rest of this post is interesting, and I was moved by Ghost. I know my bias is probably showing, but they looked more like they were on their knees hugging themselves in pain rather than praying, and my first reaction was to want to salve their pain and find out what was hurting them. The other works were interesting, but I really do find Ghost the most striking of the pieces.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    It’s not the Middle East: It’s that these artists are echoing the nihilism of the west: Making art an ugly political statement, instead of showing us beauty that reminds us that there is an alternative vision of reality that we could aim for.

  • laila

    Yusra

    I agree with Krista on that last paragraph, it gave me an epiphany. The rear picture of the ghost stirred all these emotions in me, I can’t describe it but it’s really cool.

  • Sadhia

    the funniest/stupidest thing is how a Danish newspaper described Ghost some thing along the lines of “representing empty shells which Moslem women become during prayer” Believe me, the text in Danish was even more critical but not towards the art itself but the “moslem women” it “apparently ” represented .This line of journalism again resembles how the Western media in general portray Moslem women – unfortunately.

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    It’s interesting noone had a problem with the word vicious, but when we speak of morals in talking about art from a place where morality is often defined by the state and the culture, it is offensive. I apologize for not being clear in my word choice. Polerin, now that I look at the sculpture again I can see what you mean about them hugging inward, rocking with pain. I’ve given tours of the artwork in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building and it was so fascinating to me to watch how people would initially respond to the art, before I went into the background about it. Nancy,I don’t think this piece is nihilistic. The suffering of these women is indicative of reality, and it is not without meaning.

  • Krista

    @ Yusra:

    “It’s interesting noone had a problem with the word vicious, but when we speak of morals in talking about art from a place where morality is often defined by the state and the culture, it is offensive.”

    First of all, I wasn’t a big fan of the word “vicious” either, but just felt like some of the other wording was a bigger issue.

    I hope you understand why some of it came across as offensive though, since your comment still seems a bit surprised at this. Saying something like “their art is…” doesn’t really prompt the reader to think about the context of “a place where morality is often defined by the state and the culture” – rather, it seems like the moral judgement is coming from the perspective of the writer. You’ve clarified that this isn’t what you meant (which I appreciate), but I just want to be clear that on first glance, it didn’t feel at all as if we were “speak[ing] from a place where morality is often defined by the state and culture,” which is why so many people read it as offensive.

    @ Nancy: I agree with Yusra that the piece makes a powerful statement, and shouldn’t really be considered nihilistic. Yes, there is a role for art that shows us “beauty that reminds us that there is an alternative vision of reality that we could aim for,” as you said, but art has never been only about beauty or always separate from politics. Art has a power to reach us on a level that other forms of expression sometimes can’t, and thereby to provoke, disturb, or inspire, as the case may be. The fact that it makes a political statement doesn’t make it ugly (personally, I find this piece quite striking.)

  • http://eclexia.livejournal.com polerin

    Thank you for the apology, it’s very appreciated.

    As a last note, this segment really touched me:

    At first-glace perhaps, “Ghost” is too straight-forward (Serle calls it “weak, boring, stuff”), but is that so bad? Have we become so accustomed to the hidden nature of the intellectual, so cynical of the simple, so predisposed, if not unwaveringly susceptible to ulterior motives that we only accept art that is multidimensional? I say, in a world filled with conspiracy theories, why not take a moment to appreciate the palpable? Serle’s piece, like the history of western attitudes toward the Middle East, does not recognize that even after wars, innumerable death and hair-pulling complexity, genuine simplicity will always be found in the Middle East.

    It reminds me of how people always perceive me differently than I do. No matter how chaotic my life is, or how detailed and nuanced some of the things I do or say can be… I don’t perceive myself as a complex person. I am simple in nature and no matter how complex the interaction, if you look at the core of why I do and say things, it is going to be one of a very limited set of motivations.
    [relurk]

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  • Kader Attia

    Dear Yusra,
    Dear all,

    Thanks a lot for your review and for your comments, which I find really interesting. I am really happy that the work “Ghost” and the exhibition raise so many discussions, as, as I usually say, Art is here to raise questions, not to give answers.

    I have read Adrian Searle’s article, published in the Guardian, and found that he had missed a lot about the artwork “Ghost”, so I have written him an answer. I don’t know if he has got it, as I haven’t received any answer. Nevertheless, given your interesting and passionate exchanges, I wanted to share this with you (see below).
    Hope you will enjoy.
    Keep questioning, that’s the best way to leave life.

    Warmly.
    Kader Attia

    Dear Adrian Searle,

    I hope this email finds you well.
    I have read your article “Shiny hollow people”, published in The Guardian on January 29th, with attention and found it really interesting.
    In Art, what you see is, fortunately, not always what you get. Indeed, because of my origins (my ancestors came from Palestine to Algeria) and because, I believe, like Edward Said, that the Orient is an area stretching from Rabat to Tokyo, I feel linked to the Middle-East. Nevertheless, it does not mean that my work should be read only from this angle. That would be too obvious. It is not because my work “Ghost” is shown in an exhibition gathering artists from the Middle-East that you should look at it in a one sided and formal way. It goes beyond a mythological representation of the condition of women in the Muslim culture. Moreover, seeing aluminum foil as a reference to the environment of these women (the kitchen) is an interpretation made by the Western mind. Indeed, I had lunch at my mother’s house today, and the food she gave me had been kept since two days in a piece of fabric, which is typical of the Oriental way of living. Like many things brought by Western societies, aluminum foil is not a relevant symbol of the typical Arab woman’s everyday life.

    With this work, I aim at filling the space with void. On that point, you were right: one important aspect of these castings is that they embody an absence, but not the one that you mean: not only “woman as absence”.
    The meaning of this absence goes beyond any symbolic analysis. The sculptures could indeed be rows of men, as it already happened that I casted men. This artwork is not symbolically related to any specific gender. It is rather linked to an experience: the experience of void.

    The void has a strong importance in the Orient. From Lao Tsu to Henri Moore, the void has always been a spatial data, opposite to fullness. Lao Tsu’s sentence: “Man creates things, but Void gives them meaning”, puts it very well.
    When Yves Klein exhibited “le vide” (the void) in 1958 in Paris, he showed that the void can also be thought as an otherness in a social context of political doubt (between French 4th and 5th Republic). Indeed, at that time, France was in the middle of a period of transition between the 4th and the 5th Republic. It was also in the middle of the decolonization wars, in Indo-China and in Algeria. Doubts about the future, sensed through the idea of emptiness that the loss of colonies would leave behind, on the economical, geopolitical and cultural levels, have raised a social anguish about a future that was seen like a huge void.

    In the installation “Ghost”, the political reference of void (its “history or archive ”, as Michel Foucault would say) coexists with its poetic form.
    These two aspects of the void, political and poetical, exist in a way related to space as well as to time. These notions indeed exist through the space contained in and surrounding each sculpture, but they are also linked to the medium’s fragility, which then gives them an ephemeral existence.
    I use material – aluminum foil, which could easily disappear. The fragility of these sculptures presupposes that they will have an ephemeral existence. These sculptures then create a fault in time, which, from a metaphorical point of view, is a temporal void. This is more important than any iconographical symbolic interpretation.
    Void is then not only a physical and spatial reality. The void and its geometry are variable. It is ephemeral and then temporal.

    The aluminum foils sculptures are not the whole work of art, the void is also part of it. In The Order of Things Michel Foucault demonstrates how all representations of things neither depend completely on culture, nor totally on the scientific rules that define them, but also on the space between these two extreme notions, which is Experience. This experience affects our perception of the world more than we would like to believe, and the way things appear to our eyes is subordinated to it.

    The experience of this artwork, “Ghost”, that one perceive through its historical content, its “archive”, is, in my opinion, more than an objective iconological notion contained in its boundaries, but rather what subjectively binds us to this artwork. It arises from an intimate dialogue that works like a “sonar” between an artwork and the individual, and produces a personalized echo deep inside each one of us. The sound made by this “sonar” resonates deeply inside our own personal history, searching for an echo that will come back in the work, and vice versa, and this in as many different ways as there are individuals and their “self” on Earth. If two friends look at the Van Eyck painting “The Arnolfini Couple”, they may both appreciate it (or not), but not for the same reasons. I believe that the experience of an artwork has a very personal flavor, which belongs neither to the artist nor to the viewer, but which is a perpetual extension of a dialogue that differs among epochs and geographical position: space and time.

    So I totally understand that you did not like your experience of the artwork “Ghost”. I just hope that you did not get your experience of the artwork “Ghost” and your “Saatchi experience” mixed up.
    It would also have been wonderful that your criticisms would not have been based only on formal and symbolic aspects. The aluminum foil sculptures embody a reflection and a thought that go beyond “a regiment (…) survivors wrapped in foil blankets”.
    What you see is not always what you get.

    All the best,
    Kader Attia

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    Salaam Kader,
    What a pleasure to have you comment here. I completely agree with your response to Searle about Ghost being a “sonar” and part of our own history. Ghost raises questions but also emotions, the type we tend to keep to ourselves because they are too painful or embarrassing or intimate to share with others. I’m curious Kader, you said art does not provide answers, it raises questions. This got me thinking about Duraid Laham, who after a lifetime of performing came to the conclusion that art is useless as a means for political change. I remember reading his statement and feeling very down; I was sad he gave up yet I agreed with him.


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