DUBAI: A bed with a rumpled sheet in the center of a room. A woman in a checkered dress with her back turned. The bold art exhibition “As We Gaze Upon Her,” which runs until January 31 at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi and is curated by The Banat Collective, doesn’t attempt to define womanhood, but it poses question after question in a delightful mix of exhibits designed to evoke an emotional response. It is a colorful, powerful depiction of womanhood in the Arab world.
The Banat Collective consists of Sara bin Safwan, who is a curator for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by day, and Sarah Alagroobi, an established artist, graphic designer and art professor. The duo curated the work of 27 male and female artists during the pandemic with a brief to creatively defy heteronormativity, confront patriarchy, and depict personal journeys.
The exhibition is divided into five main themes: “Subverting the Gaze” focuses on the male gaze, “Masquerade” addresses gender and heteronormativity, “Vindication of the Body” revolves around the female body, “Difference as Incompleteness” explores traditional cultural roles, and “Dysfunctionality” explores feminism.
“Banat Collective started in 2016 as a simple digital platform to interview artists and give them a platform to showcase their work,” Safwan tells Arab News. “It’s grown into this multifaceted exhibition. We wanted to explore womanhood in the context of this region, because the narrative was always written for us and about us, rather than by us. We took the challenge to group all of these artists together to reclaim our stories and identities.”
There are no holds barred in this progressive exhibition. Amina Yahya’s acrylic painting, “Te’rafy,” poses bodies wearing ‘modest’ and ‘immodest’ clothing — a differentiation often used to justify sexual crimes in her native Egypt. The short film “3aroosa,” (Bride), by Mashael Alsaie depicts the “performative rituals of the wedding night through the mechanical motions of oil machines.” The film uses real archival footage of an oil-rink petrochemical plant in Bahrain from 1968.
“We wanted to introduce concepts that had already been spoken about in the private sphere, but bring them out in public,” says Alagroobi. “The artworks showcase existing women’s struggles today.”
A range of emotions play out in the diverse works. There is pure rage in Rania Jishi’s installation “Dinner is Served,” where her contempt for domesticity comes alive in the form of cracked plates with words like “Anger” written on them. Utensils and food are missing from the traditional table setting. Similarly, Saudi artist Jude Al-Keraishan’s series of black-and-white photographs, titled “Sanad,” shows a wooden seat as it gets destroyed by an axe.
Others are playful, though equally thought-provoking. Maitha Hamdan’s “Precautions” spotlights a simple act — eating ice-cream — through a single-shot video showing the artist as she repeatedly devours an ice-cream cone through a veil in a deliberately unerotic manner. The ice cream acts as a “means of restaging gendered norms, repeated, reinforced and remediated as a radical, satirical and pictorial performance.”
Shamiran Istifan uses sugar wax in her work, creating a visceral experience as the wax melts, drips and echoes, aimed at “deconstructing the beautification and objectification of the exotic woman.” In “Untitled (Shelter, Flag),” Saba Askari transforms her used make-up wipes, leftover from everyday performances, into a sculpture. The material becomes both the subject and the object of her work, allowing for texture to take precedence over aesthetic. The work highlights the tiresome act of daily creation and erasure.
Through her multiple exposure, analogue photography, Aude Nasr appropriates traditional masculine clothing, such as the tarbouche, confronting divisive gender codes and constructs. The soft tones and deep contrasts in her work have a spectral quality, connecting ghosts of past tradition to a progressive future.
The Banat Collective’s show must be lauded for its foray into gender constructs, typically a subject that is not openly tackled in the region. Front and center at the exhibition is Augustine Paredes’s self portrait of his back in a fetal position superimposed on a rumpled bed sheet, on a black steel-frame bed.
“With works like the bed, we’ve found so many new meanings related to gender roles and even the diaspora, as the artist is from the Philippines,” says Alagroobi. “As is the case with Nasr’s photographs and their expansive nature, we wanted to make sure we reserve space for works like these, because these are important conversations to have.”