DUBAI: Several washing lines support an assortment of colorful garments between two walls. It’s a scene one would commonly find in a Mediterranean town during spring or summer when the warm rays of sun allow for garments to be easily hung to dry outdoors. Only this time there is no sun overhead and the pieces of clothing have long been dry.
The washing lines are part of British-Lebanese artist Aya Haider’s installation “Highly Strung,” a work that repurposes a domestic space with a powerful message of female empowerment. It was recently exhibited by Jeddah-based Athr Gallery in London’s Cromwell Place.
For 365 days, the artist and mother of three embroidered a piece of fabric she had used — perhaps children’s clothes, a piece of cloth, or her own dresses — then hung it up as physical proof of her daily chores, including cleaning the house, ensuring school uniforms were clean and ready to wear, pumping milk and feeding her children. The thought-provoking installation celebrates the mundane, and often unrecognized, work that mothers do every day.
“The labor force of motherhood is round the clock, underpaid and undervalued in society. We are like invisible workers,” Haider tells Arab News. “It’s very much about the physicality of all of these tasks. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I would feel like I had nothing to show for myself. Women do a little bit, a little bit every day and you come away with nothing tangible, so this installation literally quantifies (it) in a tangible way.”
The price of the work also reflects its labor. She took the minimum wage in the UK (£8.36 for those aged 21 or 22, equivalent to $11.59) and multiplied it by 24 hours and 365 days to price the work, arriving at a figure of more than $101,000. “That’s it’s true value,” she says.
Haider has long worked within the interstices of art, politics, and society, with a particular focus on women’s issues. “My work is all about storytelling, particular the stories of my mother, grandmother and my own,” she says.
Issues relating to displacement, memory and forced migration, particularly in the Middle East, inform much of Haider’s multimedia-based art. “I look especially at survival stories of communities and diasporas,” she explains.
She often repurposes used, recycled, or discarded items, endowing them with new life and meaning. Her 2013 installation “Year of Issue,” for example, consisted of 18 books representing the 18 countries across the MENA region, with each book sharing the same year of publication as its respective country’s year of independence — exploring memory, migration and loss with the irony and humor common to her practice. “These objects are important because they carry many stories,” she says.
Since becoming a mother, women’s issues have been at the forefront of her work. In pieces created for her “Out of Service” exhibition in 2019, she drew parallels between the untold stories of migrant female domestic workers and her own questions regarding the visibility of female labor.
“During my talks with these migrant domestic workers we spoke of exploitation — being overworked, undervalued, working 20-hour days without a break, all things I relate a lot to motherhood,” says Haider. “It’s a blessing to be a mother but the hardships are often completely invisible or unspoken about.”
“Highly Strung” highlights not only the unsung labors of the female gender but also the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on young mothers.
“The pandemic amplified everything I was feeling as a young mother,” Haider says. “After a day of homeschooling my children (aged 6,4 and 2), I would (work on) my art from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m. Art became my outlet and a way to make sense of the injustices of the world during these trying times.”