Abdulaziz Al Qahtani is a Saudi Arabian artist based in London. His first exhibition, “An Intimate Geography,” is at the Lahd Gallery. It examines the contradictory relationship between Middle Eastern women and Western society. The exhibition is comprised of a series of twelve images that aim to show the complexities of life in the Middle East.
There were three main themes in the photographs; critiquing gender inequality, consumption, and individuality. Through examining the contradictions within these themes, he critiques the modern divide between public and private lives in Arab society.
Rather than serving as a trivial and sensationalized exposé on the secret lives of Muslim women, Al Qahtani’s beautiful work is thought-provoking and comments on contemporary conflicts that some Middle Eastern women face today. However, it did leave me with many questions.
The first two images in the series focus on a reversal of gender roles and identity. Al Qahtani places the woman as the dominant master in marriage; in one image (pictured left) she is brandishing a whip, while her husband is emasculated in a bustier and heels. In another, a woman has three husbands crouched on the ground in submission to her. These images were conflicting for me. Al Qahtani’s aim was obvious, to show that gender relations and institutions like marriage keep women in a subjugated position, and that such inequalities are difficult to discuss within the Middle Eastern context.
Despite showing a woman with three husbands and using many images of hijab, Islam is never directly referenced in the exhibition. I thought this was important because it reflected the complexity of the relationship with God and culture. Rather than restricting the observer to reflecting on how religion fits into the lives of Middle Eastern women, Al Qahtani focuses on showing women that are negotiating their identities, much like any other group of women in the world. However, I feel as though Al Qahtani did not examine how religion might actuality fit into that identity crisis.
The hijab was used in the same way in most images, and I was most interested in how it was used in the series exploring identity and self expression. I wondered what message Al Qahtani was trying to send about Islam. In particular, religious symbolism seemed to clash with a need to express individuality. While the hijab may be used as the basis to homogenize or find a common ground between Middle Eastern women, Al Qahtani makes a point of finding where women might be different within this specific theme. In particular, he shows women mixing elements of punk culture, or things like tattoos with while wearing a hijab (pictured right).
Thus, while the relationship with religion within this series may be complex, I felt that the hijab only served as a foreign object, obscuring the individuality of the subjects. I thought this was a missed opportunity for Al Qahtani in many ways. As someone who wore hijab during her formative teenage years, I appreciated seeing the tensions between covering and trying to express myself, but I did not really see the hijab actually being used to be a part of rebellion or expression, but rather in juxtaposition to modes of expressing individuality.
While Al Qahtani’s history as a Saudi Arabian definitely influenced his work, his perspective and position is never defined. While he says that the images are commentary on women in the Middle East, I felt that he was pulling images from a particular culture. In failing to make that distinction, Al Qahtani invites the observer to view his critique as pertinent to the Middle East at large, thus homogenizing the very women that he wishes to depict outside of stereotypes.
I thought this was largely evident in his images relating to the theme of consumption. For example, two images were featured in the series that made me think that this was perhaps a critique of a particular subset of the Middle East. The fact that this was not differentiated, I felt, took away from the overall point of the exhibition. These images in question, while being stunning, depict a veiled woman standing atop Selfridge’s (pictured left). The caption on the image said that this was meant to pay homage to the women who come to London specifically to shop, rather than to see the tourist attractions.
While I did enjoy that these images showed that the hijab is not necessarily a symbol of faith or piety, but an element deeply embedded in many other factors, the reality Al Qahtani depicts in these photos reflects a very specific reality that is not true for the entire Middle East. Thus, while Al Qahtani’s exhibition critiques some important and relatable themes, some aspects are widely influenced by his own background, and he should have elaborated more on its influence.
Overall, the exhibition featured beautiful works, and I applaud Al Qahtani for straying from the conventional titillating stereotypes, and focusing on the gender of Middle Eastern women.
The exhibit is at the Lahd Gallery in Hampstead until January 19th. You can see all the images at the Squa.re blog.
Thanks to Naseem Faqihi for the tip!