Arab poets inspire an international cast of women artists through a shared struggle.
A bold group show at the Crypt Gallery in London shines a light on the passionate strength of female artists across cultures and centuries.
Opening at The Crypt Gallery on 14 February and running through 5 March 2017, “Radical Love: Female Lust” marries work of 48 contemporary female artists with poetry written by Arab women from a collection of classical poems dating back to pre-Islam. The passages, such as this poem written by Ullayya Bint El-Mahdi below read very much like contemporary sound-bites:
I held back my love’s name
and kept on repeating it to myself.
Oh how I long for an empty space
to call out the name I love.
The exhibition aims to challenge stereotypes beyond a one-dimensional view of the female creative practice in a field where the most expensive auction prices are commanded almost exclusively by male artists and women’s art exhibitions are placed in the realm of the “other”. More importantly, it seeks to crush patriarchal myths that continue to spread about women hailing from the Middle East.
The Crypt Gallery at St Pancras Church is found in Central London. Beginning in 1822, the locale provided coffin burials for well-to-do patrons. Its last burial was in 1854 and remains as the final resting place of 557 people. According to the venue’s website, the gallery supports “art that provokes and questions”:
In 2002 the Crypt at St Pancras Church became a gallery space where the imagination, thoughts and emotions of 21st century artists are shared with visitors from around the world. Now this popular venue hosts a year-round programme of art exhibitions. As a church we are pleased to include art that provokes and questions, as well as art designed for contemplation, because all form an important part of our common humanity. Throughout history the Church has encouraged and supported the arts and artists.
“Radical Love: Female Lust” represents an ambitious gathering of female artists from nearly every continent – half of whom are Arab or Muslim. To offset the costs of the exhibition, the founder has set up a crowdfunding campaign. “Radical Love” began with an exhibition co-founded by Róisín O’ Loughlin in 2016 to “promote love through art”. The inaugural show featuring music and poetry successfully raised money for victims of war. O’ Loughlin feels an even stronger and urgent need for a second show with proceeds going to the Global Fund for Women:
Female Lust is a bigger and bolder venture which began formulating in February 2016 and will come to fruition on Valentine’s day in what feels like a different world. It came about as a response to the ever raging criticism of female behaviour and use of stereotypes to divide and deny shared experience and humanity, something which has been aided by the burial of female voices across history. Frustrated with this, we found inspiration in those that rang out loud and proud across the Arab world over a thousand years ago: a whole store of brilliant poetry. This look back and away helped illuminate something of who we are now, what unifies us as women.
Despite the name of the exhibition “Radical Love: Female Lust”, unbridled desire is just one of the themes explored here. According to journalist Lydia Morrish for Dazed Magazine, the poems chosen uncover other more subtle narratives such as exploring one’s value and display an attitude about sexuality that may be surprising to Western audiences:
Throwing away notions that female sexuality is only potent in certain cultures, the ancient verses demonstrate the fierceness of female lust, be it through sexual hunger, autonomy or simply having a crush.
Ahead of the opening, “gifts” of 24 poems were sent to a Muslim artist and one of another/no faith to inspire the work to be shown in the exhibition. According to O’ Loughlin, the poems from a collection translated by Yemeni poet Abdullah al-Udhari asked each artist to provide their own unique interpretation:
Each artist will receive a poem (written in English and Arabic) by post, to be opened like a gift, which they will respond to however they feel. The words of these poets who have been silenced are given voice again, and in doing so the desire for life that is present in the female and often quenched by society, rises again in the art of the modern artist.
The idea is upon receiving the poem, the artist creates a piece of work inspired by it. It’s a loose idea because we want the artist to feel free to express themselves as they wish. We’re including both English and Arabic writing for this reason. It may just be a word, or the shape of the poem that sparks something.
These chosen poets offer evidence of a life lived boldly and often unapologetically – providing a stark contrast to contemporary life, a time O’ Loughlin says “seems filled with agenda”. As O’Loughlin told Art Radar, these classic poems offer up lessons that we would be wise to study and remember in a time rife with alternative facts:
At a time when the term ’empowerment’ has been co-opted to sell us everything from razorblades to shoes, it felt thrilling to come across someone with the balls to embody it – she was so sure of her worth that she had these words embroidered on her (transparent) tunic! Wallada, this amazing Muslim poet, was the daughter of a Caliph who inherited her fathers estate and ran her own palace and literary salon which many of the great minds of the time attended. She gave lessons to the women of her court and held her love affairs openly and unapologetically, writing rhymes in praise of her lover Ibn Zaydún and when things went bad, lambasting him. This was in Spain – why have so many of us never heard about her?
Unfamiliar to some, the impassioned words of these Arab poets strike a chord with contemporary audiences. According to Egyptian artist Hana Perlas, her poem about the loss of a woman’s son by Umm khalid al-Numayriyya brought home the tension and violence that has plagued the Middle East in the last decade:
Arabic literature in general is very poetic and full of beautiful metaphors. I tried to depict the emotional metaphors in the poem which are full of pain and longing through two photographs, the sorrow of a lonely mother doing her duties – baking bread for her family while staring at the fire and so lost in thought – and a dream-like photograph of a young boy playing with pigeons which represents peace and love. I merged the two photographs together to evoke the idea of her longing to see her son and feel his presence, with the wind bringing him to her mind. Two worlds flow and become one. Separated yet connected. So far yet so close.
In another work by Saudi artist Mashail Faqeeh, a poem by Qasmuna bint Isa’il ibn Yusuf ibn Annaghrila presents a girl with opportunities – but the subject is too scared or confused to choose any of them. Faqeeh’s embroidery of thread on canvas shows “lemon, olive and pomegranate trees which were common during that time” as the subject’s environs.
Regardless of the times and the location, “Radical Love: Female Lust” sweeps aside the differences to emerge with a fresh take on the female experience. And as O’ Loughlin reminds us, these words (and now artworks) are like a light in the wilderness during these unsettling times of the 21st century:
Luckily for us in wanting to share them with a modern audience, they read like the best Pop lyrics – short and sweet in their intense defiance, desire, lovesick longing, pride and fun. The lust – whether for sex or simply life itself – was so apparent the title suggested itself. Written over millennia, by women ranging from slaves to wits to princesses, they challenge preconceptions of faith, of class, of the female experience long ago. They are a deliberate and timeless resistance to the silencing and patronising of females. Whatever external restraints were placed on these women, they retained a vitality and independence of spirit, a powerful tonic to these troubling times.
- Silent intensity: Egyptian American Yasmine K. Kasem – in conversation – February 2017 – diaspora artist explores “cultural limbo” through sculpture and installation
- Modern women: 13 Lebanese female artists in “LEBANON MODERN!” at the Beirut Art Fair 2016– September 2016 – modernist art scene reveals flourishing of female Lebanese artists
- A feminine look at Saudi Arabia’s “GENERA#ION” at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco– August 2016 – survey show exhibiting Saudi Arabia’s “new generation of artists” seeks to provide space for dialogue
- Legends, ghost and feminism: Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann at Tyler Rollins Fine Art – in pictures– June 2016 – iconic imagery touches on myths and anti-colonial sentiments found in Southeast Asian folklore
- Identity, memory and the practice of veil: Iranian artists Sepideh Salehi and Kamran Taherimoghaddam at New York’s Rogue Space Chelsea– March 2016 – exhibition of husband and wife’s collaborative works examines the struggles between the sexes
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