Gender is a tricky subject to take on. This is evident in the new Warehouse421 exhibition As We Gaze Upon Her, which explores womanhood and the idea of ‘woman’, its definitions, permutations and complications.
Curated by Sara bin Safwan and Sarah Alagroobi of the Banat Collective, the exhibition, which runs in the Abu Dhabi arts centre until January, has ambitious aims. The curatorial text outlines the intention to “expand the notion of ‘woman’, often constrained by social, cultural and existential insecurities” and to investigate ‘woman’ as both “an idea and a body”.
The chosen artists, the curators say, have “resisted and reclaimed” staid narratives around womanhood. Their works “defy heteronormativity, providing an inclusive window into marginalised groups throughout the region, who face issues of discrimination, exclusion and exploitation intersecting with class, race and nationality”.
Bin Safwan and Alagroobi make up creative platform the Banat Collective, which has been around since 2016 and is dedicated to tackling ideas on Arab womanhood through exhibitions, discussions, articles and artist books. They were chosen as the first to be part of Warehouse421’s Curatorial Development Programme, an initiative launched this year that provides mentorship and production support for curators to develop a group show.
As We Gaze Upon Her is divided into five sections, each with a thematic focus: the male gaze (“Subverting the Gaze”); performativity in relation to gender (“Masquerade”); the representation of the female body (“Vindication of the Body”); women’s cultural roles (“Difference as Incompleteness”); and ideologies around feminism (“Dysfunctionality”).
A new take on womanhood?
One of the first works in the show is by the BAYA Collective from Belgium. The portrait Women of Ourselves is meant to challenge the “western gaze” and redress Orientalist portrayals of Arab women. Unlike depictions past, the women here do not recline – they are clothed in vibrant traditional outfits, looking directly into the camera lens. But the image feels stale, failing to tread fresh ground with its ideas or style.
The same goes for British artist Farwa Moledina’s portrait of a Muslim woman cloaked in fabric that bears motifs from The Grande Odalisque (1814) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Titled No one is neutral here, it shows the woman with her back turned to the camera, alienating the viewer. The artist has purposefully rendered the image “cold, lackluster and unerotic”, as the curators describe it, but perhaps does so too successfully, as it leaves the work with nothing to see or say.
In the section Masquerade, Saba Askari, who lives in Brooklyn, transforms make-up wipes into sculpture, which also resembles a stained white flag. The curatorial text describes the material as “leftovers from everyday performances”, acting as an intimate record of the daily refashioning of identity. Askari’s documentation skims the surface of the concept of gender performativity, proclaiming little about the consequences of such “everyday performances” on the individual.
When it comes to the female form, the artists in the section Vindication of the Body dismantle, conceal and deform anatomy. Amina Yahya’s painting Family Values fragments the subjects’ bodies, contrasting what is deemed "modest" and "immodest" within the regional context, while Alymamah Rashed stretches limbs into semi-abstract fleshy coils and twists. Suleika Muller wraps her subject in white cloth, leaving a haunting, rigid figure. The work’s ideas echo Moledina’s, but Muller’s figure retains its presence, and consequently its power, despite the erasure of its physical characteristics.
Here, the section misses the opportunity to consider the female form beyond the usual discussions of representation, although Saudi artist Sarah Brahim’s gestural series Who we are out of the dark proposes a transcendence of the physical, translating her body into abstract markings by imprinting parts on to cyanotype on silk.
Other works seem to seethe, such as Rania Jishi’s revolt against domesticity, transforming dinnerware into passive-aggressive objects stripped of functionality. Her hand-painted ceramics Dinner Is Served feature unusable plates and bowls, some broken, others pierced with holes. One bears a mark of a hand seemingly clawed in anger and another’s quaint flora and fauna design is interrupted with the phrase “shut your mouth” in Arabic. There’s also Jude Al Keraishan’s Sanad, a sequence of black and white photographs that show the destruction of a masnad or seat, with its wooden frame being splintered by an axe.
Rarely in the show do we see women experiencing joy or pleasure, though there are moments of levity, however, such as in Maitha Hamdan’s Precautions, a video work of her eating ice cream – an act commonly sexualised by men – through a veil. These works, as well as the more absurdist ones such as Umber Majeed’s kitschy Hypersurface of the Present – a feminist rewriting of Pakistan’s history, turning it into the first “Muslim Nuclear State” – and Emirati artist Aliyah Alawadhi’s surreal triptych Psychic Impotence, which features a languid reclining nude, are a respite from heavy-handed messages.
One of the flaws in As We Gaze Upon Her is that its ideas stay suspended in generalities and inevitably fall short of presenting anything new to discussions of womanhood and gender. It relies too heavily on narratives around the patriarchy, lacking nuance and summing up women’s experiences as resistance rather than independence.
Still, the curators must be credited for their attempt to develop an exhibition that doesn’t simply follow the usual self-congratulatory, women’s empowerment campaigns. But to take on a subject as complex and contentious as gender, a certain specificity or locality is needed. Patriarchy may be all-encompassing, but it also recasts itself in different contexts. For a show that sets out with emancipatory aims, the urgency has been lost and the targets seem to be undefined.
As We Gaze Upon Her is on view at Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, until January 23. More information is available at warehouse421.ae