What is subversive art? Is it art that provokes a marginalized group already stigmatized by the mainstream? Is it art that re-produces superficial analyses of sensational subjects? Or, rather, is it art that upsets the current status quo and confronts the establishment? Let me explain…
Artists such as British-born Sarah Maple enjoy much attention and public controversy around their treatment of ‘hot topics’ part of our current Western zeitgeist – such as the wearing of the hijab, the niqab, and feminism in Islam. The pinnacle of Maple’s fame came from her solo exhibit at the SaLon Gallery in London, which was attacked after segments of the Muslim community expressed concern over one particular painting (shown to the left). Covered by newspapers such as The Independent and The Telegraph, and a plethora of blogs and independent news sites, the incident was widely debated and condemned. Without proof, it was assumed that the attackers stemmed from an angry Muslim population – despite the fact that the violence was also strongly condemned by the same individuals who expressed concern over the offensiveness of Maple’s work. While the attack on the art gallery tells a lot about the antisocial state of mind of the perpetrators (who may or may not have been Muslim), the wide coverage this type of incident incites tells a lot more about our readiness to condemn certain attempts at censorship over others.
Following headlines covering censored exhibits, almost all of them feature the same story of offended Muslim groups bullying such and such gallery to remove ‘offensive’ art. While this is shocking and in most cases unjustified, the truly subversive art that questions the status quo is simply rejected or quietly censored by the mainstream without fuss or fanfare. One specific case comes to mind.
Just recently the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris curated an exhibition entitled ‘Le Corps Decouvert’ – translated as ‘The Body Uncovered’ – touching on the representation and treatment of the naked body in art across the Arab world. Iraqi-born artist Sundus Abdul-Hadi was selected to participate with one of her more controversial paintings ‘Inanna in Damascus’, touching on the issue of prostitution amongst female Iraqi refugees. The painting, released in 2008, caused a stir across the Arab-speaking world after a defamatory article published on Saudi-owned news site Al Arabiya.com elicited threats, personal insults, and a multitude of angry blog posts branding Abdul Hadi as a vulgar woman looking for cheap controversy.
The IMA, having chosen this particular painting, seemed to be ready to counter attempts at silencing Abdul Hadi’s work. However, days after the opening of the exhibit in Paris, the IMA removed Abdul Hadi’s painting and did not inform the artist. How did Abdul Hadi find out? Some friends visited the exhibit expecting to find her piece, and called shortly after informing her they could not find it anywhere. The artist contacted the IMA demanding an explanation. Their response? “…management has expressed serious reservations about the political contents of the painting which may not conform to their neutrality policy.”
A thorough search of the IMA’s website produces no trace of any neutrality policy, and the artist herself confirmed no such clause in the contract she signed. While some controversial exhibits are protested by an offended, already demonized, part of the populace, others are directly censored without need for any mediatized protest. When Abdul Hadi wrote back to express her concerns about their unsatisfactory response, their reply raised even more disturbing questions:
“…when we received the painting and unpacked it, we could see then the details and the word (السعودية) written on the immatriculation number of the car. This detail is stigmatizing a specific country: Saudi Arabia. And the Institut du monde arabe being a cultural institution representing all Arab countries, we are in the obligation of not taking sides.”
Stigmatization is different from factual representation, and reproducing real-life scenarios no more stigmatizing than calling a cat a cat. Indeed, by removing the artwork, the IMA took a side and chose to gag Abdul Hadi’s work in favour of conserving a certain image of Saudi men. A sadly ironic play-out of Abdul Hadi’s painting. According to the artists’ research, the overwhelming majority of first-hand documentation on this topic is to be found via cell phone videos by Saudi men in their hotel rooms, recording their ‘sexual tourism’ with Iraqi prostitutes. Furthermore, the artist asserts that the painting is a metaphorical comment on the exploitation of Iraq, with Saudi being one of the biggest allies to the US-led invasion. Fact.
“When my voice gets silenced, my rights are affected. When a cultural institution cannot uphold the rights and freedom of intellectual artistic expression of the artists they select to exhibit, it is inexcusable.” wrote Abdul Hadi in response to IMA’s removal of her art piece.
Will you find this affront to freedom of expression in your daily paper? Will there be widespread disgust and debate following this incident? No. No Muslim groups were to be scapegoated this time – the censorship came directly from a well-respected institution that dictates the limits of the acceptable and the unacceptable. Staging a protest against art deemed offensive is within the limits of freedom of expression, however, censoring and removing an art piece deemed ‘too political’ is not. The most disconcerting aspect of this story is that the artist may have never found out if those friends had not visited the exhibit and contacted her. This is censorship in its ugliest form – truth silenced beneath the guise of ‘cultural neutrality’.While Sarah Maple basks in the sensationalism of her work and the fame incurred thanks to the backlash from violent hooligans, Sundus Abdul Hadi continues to plough through institutional censorship and political controversy because her work hits where it hurts: it is subversive art.
‘”Inanna in Damascus” is a reinterpretation of “The Slave Market” (1867) by French Orientalist painter Jean-Leon Gerome. It has been re-imagined as the modern-day depiction of the Iraqi prostitutes that are being exploited daily in clubs, brothels and hotels around Damascus. The sex industry that is currently running rampant in Middle East is largely due to the consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq and the resulting exodus of refugees. Syria is currently housing over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Prostitution has become both an industry and a form of slavery, with stories of Iraqi girls either getting “married” off by desperate families, duped by shady ‘pimps’ promising them decent jobs, or out of the woman’s lack of options as a refugee in a strange land without a breadwinner, and without the right to hold a working position. Inanna, the female figure, is the Sumerian goddess of sexuality and war, one of the most revered goddesses of pre-Islamic Mesopotamia. All four figures stand in front of a Syrian cityscape in the Ottoman-esque courtyard of a fictitious nightclub aptly called “Al Hurman”, defined as ‘the forbidden’ from Arabic, with its roots in the words “Hareem/Harem” (def: women’s quarters), and “Haram” (def: sin). This painting is both about the crisis of prostitution and exploitation of Iraqi refugee women and girls, and a symbol of the land during wartime. Iraq has been exploited and prostituted by the same symbolic characters depicted in the painting, while much of the world watches on in ambivalence.’