Authors: Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin (2012, Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art)
Reviewed by Doris Friedensohn
Timing, as we know, is (almost) everything. This is the case in national elections, peace overtures, Academy Awards, and what we choose to read. In 2007, when Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, co-directors of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art, began planning a number of exhibits by women artists from the Middle East, that region wasn’t yet every day’s headline story. How much has changed! First, we saw hopes raised by the Arab Spring for democratic governance and economic opportunity; and then the uncertainties, violence and dislocations of a continuing Arab Autumn. Now Brodsky and Olin’s remarkable book—part art history, part social critique, part catalogue—is especially welcome. A wise, compelling, and beautifully produced volume, The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society highlights women artists’ perspectives on their homelands and cultures.
The Fertile Crescent, a term coined by the archaeologist James Henry Breasted in the early 20th Century, offers Olin and Brodsky a defining pun: Women are not just our bodies. Female creativity derives also from the eye and the hand, the mind and the spirit. While the term ”fertile crescent” may seem to suggest a unified region, the authors insist that it encompasses heterogeneous countries, cultures and artistic identities.
The cover of The Fertile Crescent shows a woman’s pale hand emerging mysteriously from a dark abbaya. The hand, dramatically lit, grabs the black-on-black textured fabric as if for protection from a hostile world. Or, could it be to assert control? Who is this mysterious yet iconic woman? That’s the tease. A hidden inner world, featuring the works and lives of 25 women artists of Middle Eastern heritage, beckons. Framing the artists’ statements and gorgeous reproductions of their work—exhibited in New Jersey during the fall/winter of 2012—are interpretative essays by feminist critics and art historians.
The images, be assured, are provocative, heart-breaking and unforgettable. They invite slow viewing and reflection. Whether we are looking at painting, sculpture, installation art or stills from performance pieces, we feel the thrust of this work—sometimes like a laceration of the skin or an electric shock: e.g., a woman’s face covered with Koranic script or the abdomen of a belly dancer liberated from “the shame of having a clitoris.”
As the accompanying narratives make clear, the issues addressed in The Fertile Crescent are deeply rooted and complex. These include the vulnerability of women’s bodies, state brutality, ethnic violence, imperialism, gender/religious oppression, and exile. Dark themes, to be sure. Still, the inventiveness and energy on display overwhelm despair. We’re heartened by the power of women’s creativity and the seemingly bottomless capacity for hope.
Trapped between historic and modern: Consider the work and situation of Negar Ahkami. Ahkami, an American-born artist whose roots are in Iran, draws upon Persian patterned art traditions and elaborate blue-tiled mosques. Yet she confesses to the cartoonish quality of her canvases: animated, color-saturated landscapes (painted with glitter, nail polish and acrylics) that reflect both the distorted U.S. views of Iran as menace and the Iranian government’s crude presentation of itself as a fearless Islamic monolith. In a painting entitled “The Bridge, “a slight female figure—in a short dress with flowing black hair—leans over a lattice-like overpass, suspended in space. She is trapped between a melt-down of historic Persia (rivers of blue and green tile flowing into an abyss) on one side and beckoning modernity with its hyper-bright skyscrapers, all reflection and cold steel, on the other. Clearly, there’s no escape for Ahkami from nostalgia for a lost world. Nor is there any comfort in the West’s technocratic alternative. Her solace comes from the struggle “to create psychological spaces” that accommodate this tension.
Forced mobility: Space and place are principle concerns in the videos, collages and paintings of Zeina Barakeh. Barakeh, a Lebanese-born Palestinian, seeks in her art to move beyond the endless cycle of violence defining and afflicting the Middle East. Beirut, where she grew up, compels its residents again and again to choose sides. A few years ago, from a safe distance in California, she began imagining a resolution: “The Third Half,” a “state” outside of these divisions, dedicated to survival. In the Third Half Passport Collection, the artist mixes details from actual and invented passports for three generations of family members. These seemingly familiar and matter-of-fact documents, while evoking the possibility of self-definition, are bitter reminders of the family’s forced mobility from the time of the British mandate (1943) to the present.
Maps of altered reality: Israeli Ariane Littman has been a news photographer, performance artist, and creative map-maker. “The Wounded Land Project” (2004 -12) is a virtuoso effort of cultural and psychological repair. Israel, her country, is all broken up. So, too, are the Palestinian lands. Littman’s invented maps, which remove existing borders, alter the reality. Using bandages and green thread, she sews a conflict-free space. Healing, she explains, is her mission. In “The Sea of Death,” a performance video, the artist’s bandaged body is carried into the Dead Sea, which is dying from pollution. She floats away from the shore, as vulnerable as the Israeli people on the one hand and the Palestinians on the other. A dead olive tree near a checkpoint at the North-Eastern entrance to Jerusalem is the focus of another performance piece. As Littman bandages the tree with plain white gauze, an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman sing traditional Ladino and Palestinian songs of yearning for Jerusalem. The bandaged tree, like a bride reunited with Mother Earth, carries her hopes for healing in the region.
Hope is perhaps the most resonant theme in this richly instructive volume: hope for “liberation” and justice; hope that women’s voices will be heard; hope that the arts, with their profound and contradictory visions of human suffering and transcendence, will flourish; and hope that historic enemies will find ways to experience one another’s humanity and yearnings for peace.
Doris Friedensohn, professor emerita of Women’s Studies at New Jersey City University, is the author of the food memoir Eating As I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad and Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy.