For a few years now, I have been observing depictions of the veil, the niqab and the burqa, not only in the media but in pop culture. Muslimah Media Watch has written extensively about these depictions because they are so prevalent everywhere. Just last week, Nicole wrote about a controversial ad featuring a niqabi woman and a soldier. Similarly, as I have discussed in another post, niqabs and hijabs have made it to stardom through famous people like Lady Gaga and Madonna. We also see a tendency to use the niqab in artwork as woodturtle has explored. Yet, often these depictions do not result in any positive discussions about Muslim women’s rights.
Depictions of the niqab and hijab in artwork continues to trouble me perhaps because I have always seen museum-type art as elitist. Not everyone can afford to go to a museum, nor is everyone exposed to this “fine art”. I do not mean to undermine the importance of the fine arts at all; on the contrary, I have an artistic background myself. But I believe that along with appreciating art we should be critical of the processes that are involved in making it. In my own experience, artistic settings can be very exclusive. Not everyone is welcome and not everyone is deemed to understand (minimalist art anyone?). Likewise, not just anyone walks into the door and is received as an artist. One needs more than just talent to get into the “clique.” As an observer, the experience is quite similar, how many of us can be said to hang out with “intellectual” people who make and “understand” art?
But the political context is also important. For instance, growing up in Mexico, art was prevalent when centrist parties were in power despite other problems like corruption. The government funded cultural activities, subsidized museums (in most cases students and teachers could access for free all the time) and provided public spaces for emerging artists through a number of initiatives. However, these projects stopped being funded when conservatives came along, so many artists decided to appeal to the new government’s sensitivities and we saw a rise in commercial art.
So why am I telling you all this?
Last week my two friends and I decided to visit the Ottawa Art Gallery. The gallery is a huge building that keeps important pieces of art including Inuit art, modern art and classical fine art. If you ask me, it is by no means the best art gallery; it is a bit disorganized and the museographic work is poorly done in comparison to that of other museums. However, the best/worst moment was when we visited the Canadian Art section. Then I was faced with Colleen Wolstenholme’s burqa women…