Public debate about women in the Middle East easily gets bogged down in prejudice: oppression, violence and backward ways of thinking are predominant perceptions of a region that has become the epitome of chaos, war and decay.
An exhibition at the Marta Herford gallery, located in north-western Germany, tries to avoid these pitfalls by exposing the visitor to issues presented by female artists in countries as diverse as Iran, Libya, Jordan and Tunisia. Their art raises awareness about the unseen and "in between" dimensions of Middle Eastern culture, equally found in desert landscapes or in Palestinian refugee camps.
Living in uncertainty
The notion of "in-betweenness" is arguably most ingrained among stateless Palestinian people. To this end, Jordanian artist and architect Saba Innab helped rebuild the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon while creating a series of installations and drawings that reflect on almost 70 years of diaspora. She notes that Palestinians have internalised the temporary and elusive. "That interested me, " Innab admits.
Sama Alshaibi knows exactly what Saba Innab means. You have no place to return to, no place to go, said the Iraqi-Palestinian photographer who was a refugee for a large part of her life. "Nor are you welcome where you are, either."
Sama Alshaibi lived illegally for years in the U.S. before being granted asylum. To be a refugee or a displaced person " is an identity all of its own," she says.
Her photos have a subtle focus on war and exile: her aim is not to shock viewers, but introduce them to a different narrative. For her "Sisala" project – videos and photos with her body as the connecting element – she travelled to remote deserts on the Arabian peninsula and North Africa over a period of seven years.
The refugee world Alshaibi portrays is that of the desert – climate change is clearly a key issue for the artist. She is worried about developments in the U.S. since Donald Trump became president.
Yet the general focus is on the refugee crisis is something she welcomes. As a young girl, she found it frustrating that there was so little interest in refugee issues. "That at least has changed, allowing us to enter into a completely different debate," she said.
War and revolution
The wars in the Middle East are only present in the background. "Many of the artworks are about violence, but in a very subtle, aesthetic way," explains curator Michael Kroger.
Iranian-born Moreshshin Allahyari, for example, focuses on destruction by the "Islamic State" (IS) using 3D sculptures of artefacts destroyed by IS in 2015. The reprints of the sculptures feature digital information in the form of a memory card or flash drive containing Allahyari's research information, maps, pictures and videos of the months before the artefact in question was destroyed.
Moufida Fedhila stages humorous but provoking performances and interventions to point out the shortcomings in her native country, Tunisia. This is also where the so-called Arab Spring started. "For the first few months, it felt as if a door had opened to paradise, to total freedom, where anything was possible, artistically and in everyday life," she says, recalling the revolution.
Clad in a Superwoman cape, the artist urges the audience watching her "Super-Tunesienne" performance to participate in protests against the state. Disenchantment has since grown in Tunisia and Moufida Fedhila's new works appear split in their assessment of her country. She ultimately seeks direct contact with people. "I believe in the transformative power of art," Moufida explains.
Different issues, different experiences
From Jordan's Ala Younis to Amina Media from Algeria, the exhibition at the Marta Herford shows works by nine very different female artists. But why focus on art by women at all? Initially, in fact, that proved something of a deterrent among the women. The curator remembers having to work hard to persuade them to participate.
"At first I was very sceptical – an exhibition that only shows women's work?" said Saba Innab, eyebrows raised. Of course, she is fully committed to female empowerment, the artist added. But in this case, she wondered whether women were being objectified. "Are we simply exotic?" she asked.
The same was true of Moufida Fedhila and Sama Alshaibi. But Alshaibi was convinced when she saw the selection of participating artists. "I knew the very independent, smart and strong works of the other artists, so I thought this exhibition could convey to the audience how different, complex and non-cliched art from women in the region can be."
© Deutsche Welle 2017