Contributions of Arab-Americans to the Fine Arts are generally either overlooked or politicized in the American art scene. Too often, the message of Arab-American art can become obscured by the politicization of Arab-American identity. Many individuals that view Arab-American art assume that there is some political intention of the artist or that the artwork itself is a form of the artist analyzing his or her own Arab-American hybrid identity. In addition to the stereotyping of this category of art, Arab-American art is often marginalized in America because of its minority status and the difficulty of characterizing Arab-American art.
Born in Canada, Kunz has lived in cities such as London, Toronto, and New York. She has worked with design firms and magazines around the world and is internationally renowned for her illustrations and sculptures.
The painting Girls Will Be Girls appeared on the cover of The New Yorker in 2007. The work reflects the artist’s thoughts on cultural extremes and female repression. Kunz enjoys working on projects that are politically or socially oriented, especially potentially controversial projects that are “meaningful and may be open for debate.” In an interview with illoz, she explained “I’m compelled to do more personal art that addresses issues that magazines don’t address.” Using her art as a form of self expression, she explores her thoughts on oppressive costumes that some religions require of women and the similarities in traditional dress of Catholic nuns and muslim women, despite huge differences in their religious beliefs.
As a Jewish artist, Brenda Oelbaum offers a unique perspective on Arabs in America. After 9/11 she began working her fears of Arabs and Islam into her artwork. Juxtaposing images of women in hajib with visually similar images from popular culture, Oelbaum attempts to digest her own prejudices and better understand her own thoughts and feelings on the subject.
One of These Things is Not Like the Other includes an image analyzing the story of Elizabeth Smart, a young Mormon girl who was stolen from her bed in the middle of the night and held in captivity for nine months. Before she was recovered and returned to her family, her captor took her out in public garbed in a make-shift burka, her face covered by a veil held together by safety pins. This startling and arresting image illustrates the artist’s perspective on the many different forms that veiling can take: “For a Muslim woman it may be choice, religious belief, empowerment, or put upon her by her by her family or her husband. But in the situation regarding Elizabeth Smart, she was a hostage, hidden, weak.” Oelbaum hopes that people viewing her work will begin to see that the veil can be a sign of unity and solidarity for Muslim women, rather than a symbol of fear and oppression. In her own words, “Everyone is different and until you have actually spoken to the woman in her burka do you know her true feelings.”
An American by birth, Mary Tuma has studied art in her native California, as well as New York, Arizona, and Kerdassa, Egypt. Currently she teaches at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte where she serves as an Associate Professor and Head of the Fibers Program. Tuma uses her love of sewing and crocheting to express her artistic point of view through tapestry-making and the creation of various textiles.
Made from 50 yards of black silk, Homes for the Disembodied represents the displacement of the Palestinian people from their homeland. The connected nature of the dresses represents the shared misfortune of the Palestinians and their solidarity as one people; the emptiness of the clothing represents the absence of the Palestinians from their homes; and the use of the female form is a way to honor the strength of the Palestinian women who must carry on in difficult times and unjust circumstances.
Sarah Rahbar splits her time between New York and Tehran, Iran, where she was born. Rahbar does not consider herself Muslim, but her Iranian background forms the foundation of her work and her perspectives. With the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, Rahbar had to leave her homeland and her family, an experience that dramatically affected her evolution as an artist. She frequently addresses subjects that deal with political issues and current events: themes of identity, nationalism and borders feature prominently in her work.
One of the materials Rahbar uses most frequently in her work is flags. She dislikes the way flags divide and separate people, creating artificial borders and isolation and making people feel they are different from others in distant countries. In her Oppression Series, Rahbar is “exploring ideas of national belonging, as well as the conflicting role of flags as symbols of ideological and nationalistic violence.” Countries, cultures, and diversity are major forces in the world today. According to the artist, “we have made our personal identities so important and supreme above all. We believe that it is our countries, our nationalism, our religions, our cultures, our beliefs and so on, that make us who and what we are.” The result that Rahbar sees is the dividing, separating, and labeling of individuals.
Women Living Under Muslim Law
An international solidarity network, Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML) provides aid and support to women in countries where their lives are affected by laws or customs that derive from Islamic tradition. By supplying women with information and supporting their struggles and trials, WLUML hopes to increase the autonomy of women by connecting them with progressive international groups and opening up channels of communication.
Dress Codes and Modes: Women’s Dress in Some Muslim Countries and Communities is an interactive PowerPoint presentation that compares women’s dress across differences in region, ethnicity, religious groups, climate, vocation, and culture. Focusing on the role of dress codes in Muslim identity in seven geographic areas: Egypt, Iran, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, South Asia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, the presentation contains more than 100 images, including photos, drawings, and paintings, and nearly 100 quotations dealing with dress and Islam.
Born in Lebanon, Helen Zughaib spent most of her life in the Middle East until she came to the United States as a student. Today as a United States Cultural Envoy to the West Bank, Palestine, she hopes the arts can be used to foster positive dialogue about the Middle East.
Secrets Under the ‘Abaya refers to the complexities of women in Muslim countries, striving to break the stereotypes associated with the ‘abaya in Western countries. An Iraqi proverb says “There are many secrets hidden under the ‘abaya” and Zughaib attempts to use her artwork to demonstrate just how complicated concepts of veiling and the conditions of women in Islamic countries truly are. “Zughaib neither condones nor condemns the Muslim tradition; she simply provides insight into the complexity of the issue itself.” By taking the image of an object frequently associated with oppression and restriction and combining it with contemporary artistic techniques used in Western traditions, Zughaib hopes to present a different perspective on veiling and women in Arab nations.
When Amir Normandi brought his exhibit entitled “No Veil Required” to Chicago, Illinois, Muslim students became outraged and demanded for its closure. Normandi’s pieces depict some images that may seem stereotypical to some Americans, such as “Safe in Saudi Arabia” which portrays an Arab man holding gun while a woman in a hijab stands quietly in the background. This piece as well as others by Normandi can easily be misinterpreted as containing a message that equates all references to hijab with oppression. The reality is that Normandi created this piece to specifically address the mandatory wearing of the veil for Iraqi women. However, many Muslims interpreted Normandi’s pieces as furthering stereotypes and condemned them. These individuals were correct in believing that Normandi’s pieces had a political intention but misinterpreted the political statement that Normandi was trying to achieve. View other images from the “No Veil Required” exhibit on Iranian.com.