The whole culture tells you to hurry while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art. -Junot Diaz
Several weeks ago I was at UNC’s Ackland Art museum guest lecturing for a class. The photograph that accompanies this post is by Layla Essaydi and was the starting point for our conversation. It was shown to me by a museum educator colleague a number of years ago. I’ve back to it again and again. http://www.unc.edu/ackland/collection/?action=details&object_link_id=2006.14
When you see it in the museum, it is about 5 feet tall and draws your attention immediately no matter what else is in on display. My first reaction upon first viewing was a kind of alarm and discomfort. Without encouragement to keep looking, I might have frowned and looked away, eager to move on to something I could easily understand or find less threatening. Instead, I’ve been learning to wait. When students come with me to the museum, my goal is for them to begin learn to do the same.
As you can see in the photograph, veiling or covering is central. Each figure in the image is veiled to varying degrees. For many of us in the U.S., the age progression the photograph implies makes us uncomfortable. A child is carefree and uncovered. Covering engulfs the adult. We assume these women – somehow everyone assumes each figure here is female –are oppressed. Alternatively, maybe they represent a “veiled terrorist threat” that we do not understand and against which we are powerless to defend. We are nervous, we are frightened, we are angry. We are ready to either reject or rescue the picture’s inhabitants.
My museum colleagues are expert at slow looking, a practice that often translates to sitting with discomfort and noticing details. As I and my students practice staying engaged, our initial associations give way to curiosity. What is on all of their skin, their coverings, and the walls behind them? It looks like Arabic script. The Koran? Something else? Are they all women? Where are they? Who is taking their picture? Why did they agree to pose for it? Why are they looking directly at us with stares that give away so little?
When the curiosity begins, so does the learning. We learn that the artist created the photograph soon after 9-11 in response to the growing prejudice toward Muslims in the aftermath of that terrible day. We learn that she is Moroccan by birth and American too; that she splits her time between the U.S. and her homeland. We learn that those depicted in the image are her friends gathered for a party in a place where women, in days past, were sent when they “misbehaved.” The writing is Arabic script inscribed in henna, a celebratory material. It is used in this work to symbolize women claiming the skill of writing that was denied them in times past.
These bits and pieces generate more questions. What about that gaze? Why so direct? Why no smile? Why does the border look like part of a dark room photographer’s contact sheet? Why, when I ask what magazine this photograph might be in, does everyone say, almost without a breath, “National Geographic?” We are back to new layers of association to sort through. As we progress through them, we gradually learn what this photograph and its inhabitants, with their challenging gazes, are asking of us, even as we are asking questions of them.
They ask us to acknowledge our fears, confront our assumptions, move beyond them to learn more, and to revisit the image instead of walking past it. What we practice becomes part of who we are. Immediate outrage, speaking based on what we think we know versus what we’ve verified, considering the “other’s” point of view. Ideas that seem so basic, so urgent, and in such short supply.