Deerlake Gallery, Burnaby, BC
August 18 – September 15, 2018
Organized by Burnaby Arts Council
I first became familiar with Durrah Alsaif's work through the larger-than-life portraits that hung over the the Stadium/Chinatown Skytrain station this past spring. The work, titled Qimash, featured Alsaif looking straight on into the camera, deadpan. At first, I was struck by a humour in the images, particularly the absurdity of the accumulation of more and more headscarves in each of the eight posters hung across the platform. Then, there was an uncertainty about what the works were doing. Were they repeating the widespread anti-Islamic rhetoric that deems headscarves and coverings as "oppressive towards women"?1 Or were they a response to this rhetoric, instead continuously re-asserting their presence in a public space?
I later re-encountered this work in a different form through Alsaif's first solo exhibition Jawahir: Jewels at the Deer Lake Gallery in Burnaby. In the exhibition of this work in a gallery setting, Alsaif chose to display Qimash as a video performance rather as a photo series. Alsaif's look, which had initially struck me as a deadpan stare, instead came alive as a slightly uncomfortable performance. Her gaze was interrupted by her looking down momentarily to pick up the next scarf to cover her head. It was clear that this repetitive gesture was one that she was intimately familiar with: the ease of wrapping the scarf around her head and tucking in the edges perfectly, then, again, picking up another scarf to repeat the action. While her work remains slyly comedic, the performance of this work reveals a layer of discomfort that is visible on her face as she puts each scarf on herself with intention. The difficulty in balancing dozens of scarfs on her body reveals a tension between the figure and the object.
Rather than simply alluding to the tension here I'd like to interact with it straight on. Alsaif is an artist who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. I’m not pointing this out to put her work in a box; rather, I think it's important to consider how the works in Jawahir: Jewels are responding to a lived experience. Her personal context as a woman in Saudi Arabia and, later on, in Canada is integral to the work at its core. Alsaif is making work that refers to her homeland and the place her family still lives today. The Saudi state is known to unfairly punish voices of dissent, including journalists and activists.2 In creating work about her relationship to the headscarf she is referring to her lived experiences as a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia. Alsaif does this throughout her exhibition by holding the tension in each work and creating a circumstance where the viewer is forced to negotiate their own meaning of the combination of materials in her work.
While the absurdity of her performance seems to be a critique of the headscarf, the care and struggle of physically continuing with the performance of it shows an embodied struggle. While watching this performance I felt an odd sense of familiarity. While I don’t come from a Muslim background, this work felt familiar because of my relationship with long unshorn hair as a marker of Sikh identity. The repetitive gesture she was doing felt similar to the gesture I make on a daily basis, when I comb and tie my kesh into a perfect joora (hair knot). It gave me the feeling that, while Alsaif was in some ways critiquing the use of the headscarf with its use and accumulation in her work, she also had a relationship and deep connection with the material she was using. I bring this up not in an effort to flatten or create reductive parallels between mine and Alsaif's embodied experiences as women of color, but to instead create a dialogue around the importance of revealing and centreing these experiences that are often hidden and personal.
Often, artists of color are criticized for using outward markers of identity in their work.3 For example, Nep Sidhu's exhibition Medicine for a Nightmare (reflecting on the massacres of Sikh people in India in 1984) recently was heavily critiqued. One of those critiques, which was around Sidhu's usage of Sikh signifiers – including swords, regalia, and turbaned figures – was that "[t]hese signifiers end up reproducing an Orientalized visual rhetoric, obscuring the transformative potential."4 This critique is based in the idea that, in doing “identity” work, the artist is somehow exotifying themselves and their culture, putting themselves in a box. This argument allows the eurocentric viewer to dictate how the work is received rather than allowing the artist to negotiate their identity with agency. The only other option, then, becomes assimilating to the language of white formalism and attempting to elude cultural signifiers whilst making cultural work.5 Rather than adhering to the binaries of using cultural signifiers or not, Alsaif shows us the importance of materiality – whether it refers to her cultural heritage or simply to everyday, household objects one could find in Vancouver.
In Qimash, cultural signifiers are best viewed through their specific cultural contexts, both in cultural references and display setting. Instead of viewing Alsaif's work as embedded within an Orientalist system, it can be seen as critical of anti-islamic rhetoric that claims that the headscarf is an instrument of Islam to oppress women. Durrah wears the headscarf in Qimash in a way that obliges commuters who are waiting for the Skytrain to interact with images of a Muslim woman in a headscarf gazing at them. She doesn’t go about doing this uncritically; her work balances on a thin line, simultaneously critiquing the headscarf with the redundant addition of more but displaying her own embodied familiarity with the garb.
All of the works in Durrah’s exhibition tread that thin line of cultural critique. While some of her works embed cultural signifiers to subvert other works use materials that are integral to material and consumer culture. In Watan a gold-painted wooden chair is laden with unlit matches and placed as if it were a throne in the centre of a broadly middle-eastern and generic rug. The translation of the title is homeland, referencing Saudi Arabia conveys the scene as a mimicry of the Saudi palace. The juxtaposition of this scene with the matches reads as a comment on the state of the watan Alsaif is referring to. Queen, once again uses the headscarf to block out the window of a banged-up car door that is coated in gold paint. This work and her large-scale sculptures titled Gems refer to the ways in which women in Saudi Arabia are often referred to (especially by men) as gems or queens, precious objects meant to safe-guarded.
In Gems, three tires are spray painted gold and held in place by metal chains. While these tires mimic ridiculously large necklaces, they also refer to the driving ban that kept women from driving motor vehicles in Saudi Arabia up until June 2018.6 These tires and the car door in Queen also invoke the luxury car culture in Saudi Arabia and perhaps this ownership of cars is being compared to the ownership of women gems.7 The golden luxurious paintjob referencing the opulence of the Saudi empire is presented at odds with the dismembered and torn apart vehicle. While the work mocks the Saudi regime’s restraints on women (this work was made in 2016 pre-dating the lifting of the ban) it remains unsolved.
Where is the fourth tire? Has it been freed? Alsaif is creating a potential for another reading, where the chains holding these ‘gems’ fail to hold all four tires in place: perhaps a failure of the Saudi regime, perhaps an emancipatory potential within it, or maybe a freedom found outside of it. Each work contains a series of questions – and we remain answerless, instead compelled to negotiate our own understandings of the materials we see.
- "The Islamic veil across Europe." BBC News, 31 May 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095 (accessed 9 July 2019).
- For instance, Loujain al-Hathloul, a UBC alumni, is still imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for protesting the driving ban and has been tortured in jail, including punishments such as water-boarding, beating, and electric shocks. There is also the more widely circulated story of Jamal Khashoggi who was an author, columnist, and journalist.
- Merray Gerges. "Notes Towards an In(con)clusive Identity Politics. Canadian Art, 17 August 2016, https://canadianart.ca/essays/notes-identity-politics/ (accessed 9 July 2019).
- Vince Rozario. "Deeper Wounds: Nep Sidhu and Aestheticizing Trauma." MoMus, 28 March 2019, http://momus.ca/deeper-wounds-nep-sidhu-and-aestheticizing-trauma/ (accessed 9 July 2019)
- "Saudi Arabia issues first driving licenses to women." BBC News, 5 June 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44367981 (accessed 9 July 2019).
- "The Owners' Club: Saudi Arabia's thriving luxury car market." World Finance, 26 October 2015, https://www.worldfinance.com/markets/technology/the-owners-club-saudi-arabias-thriving-luxury-car-market (accessed 10 July 2019).