Friday, April 13, 2012

Another image: what are they selling?

I can't resist a great title and a blog called "Canada's Excellent Future" has a beauty today:
The Veil and the Bra
It's a story about Islam. The facts are as follows. A Thompson Rivers University fine arts student named Sooraya Graham took a picture of a Muslim woman holding a bra. An employee of the gallery where the photo was to be displayed took it down, presumably because they thought it would cause offense. Outrage followed and the photo is now going back up. "The Saudi Education Centre" in Kamloops has gotten involved, more on that later.

Let's have a look at the photo (I assume, by the way, that this constitutes fair use as the photo is in the news and the copy here is not high enough quality for reproduction. If you own the rights and disagree, please let me know.)

The first thing to note is that it's a great photo. Sooraya Graham is an artist and I hope she keeps doing work like this. The second thing to note is that it is an erotic photo and it's meant to be erotic. I can see the photographer denying this—or even that it wasn't her intention to be erotic—but anyone with even a modicum understanding of visual language should be able to see this. An artist's actual intention is relatively unimportant in considering any work of art.

It would be a very different image if the woman were holding the bra up at eye level or if she had turned it around so she was looking at it from the front. The way she is holding it invites us to think about her breasts. She is holding it such that it is placed right where she would wear it the same way a little boy might walk alongside a parade and imagine he is marching in it. It suggests that the woman herself is imagining her breasts in that bra.

The veil makes it more erotic. Hey, you can see her abaya through the filigree of her bra!  I think of the Japanese saying that the moon partially obscured is more enticing than it is in full view. There are layers upon layers of enticement here.

All of which makes the artists response in the related news story puzzling.
"I was pretty shocked and I kind of felt my personal space as an artist and a Canadian had been invaded," said Graham.
A puzzling but also a perfectly reasonable response if we think about it. It's a photo of female intimacy. It invites us to consider her intimately. It's odd to turn around and complain about privacy invaded. And yet it's not. We not only take it for granted that a woman might expose and retain her intimacy this way, we strongly encourage women to do this in our culture. And they most emphatically do not encourage women to do this in some Muslim cultures.

Perhaps the real question is, who really understands what veils are about? If we peel back a few ... well if we peel back a few veils we might explore this. To get at this, let's look at the response of Saudi Education Centre:
"The artist didn't approach the artwork let's say in a very professional way that can state and can clarify the information and clarify the idea behind the picture," said centre president Trad Bahabri.

Bahabri said he thinks text explaining the photo's meaning is needed.

"I'm pretty sure many people misinterpret and many people misunderstand it. I can guarantee that," he said.
"Misunderstand" is an interesting word in this context. Someone else, equally offended, might say, with equal sincerity, that the problem is that the photograph is all too easy to understand. Putting a label or a text on it wouldn't help anyone to understand the photograph. We might claim that what the text would really do would do would be to tell people what they are supposed to think. Or, more realistically, the text would tell people what they are allowed to publicly declare about the photo.

And here we have a familiar dividing line between free societies like Canada and repressive regimes like they have in Saudi Arabia. A point that becomes clear if we consider the photographer's response for that response is just as carefully veiled as the woman in the photograph.
Graham counters it's up to the viewer to interpret the meaning, but says she had hoped the photo would show the public that women who wear the niqab are the same as everyone else.
If we wanted to be difficult, we might ask how exactly did you mean to show they are the same.  We already know that a woman in a niqab is a woman, that she has breasts, that she is an erotic being, that she has secrets and that she wears underwear. We don't need a photograph to show us this.

No, what the photograph does is to invite us to think about this woman's breasts and not in any general way but to imagine what they would look like in that erotic piece of lingerie. And, as our imagination would undoubtedly fail to do her breasts justice, we might dream of actually seeing her pull her abaya over her head (which would be an extraordinary privilege).

The thing is, each and every level of veiling adds to the eroticism. The bra itself is a kind of veil. And Sooraya Graham's comments are also a sort of veil. When she says she hoped the photo would show us that thew women who wear these veils are the same as everyone else she was very deliberately veiling her meaning. I would argue that what really bothers Trad Bahabri of the Saudi Education Centre is that this veiling is allowed. The paradox here is that oppressive societies that oblige women to wear veils don't really want women to veil themselves. Veiling is pregnant with meaning and the point of the sort of oppression we see in militant Islam is to deny a woman the right to mean anything.

If there is a lesson for the west here it is that the niqab (the veil) and the abaya  (the full-body covering garment) are just drenched in erotic potential. Imagine sitting in a room waiting as a woman comes in dressed in these garments and serves you mint tea and baklava. All you can see are her eyes. And she can deny or make you wait for even that.

Think of how intimate eyes are. It's a special privilege to look into someone's eyes. When she looked up at you. you would feel that ... somewhere. And is she smiling? You can't be sure. Everything is a tease.

I'd go on but I'd soon be writing porn.

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