Middle Eastern Women Say: I AM

It’s become a familiar question: Where are the Muslim voices of protest against the violence and misogyny of Middle Eastern culture?

The answer can be found at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., where a rich and beautiful new exhibit has just been mounted. Its promoters have billed I AM  as “a strategic visual art exhibition celebrating the rich, diverse and pivotal contribution that Middle Eastern women make to the enduring global quest for harmony and peace.”

As is often the case with art museums, the written materials for I AM soft peddle the brutal misogyny of Middle Eastern culture while making sure to place some blame on America and the West, which some of the artists claim “otherizes” Muslims and anyone else who is perceived as different. The exhibit, curated by Janet Rady, was inspired by Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, which documents the global devastation of sex-trafficking, honor killings and other forms of violence against women. The 31 women artists represented in I AM have produced a magnificent collection of painting, drawing, collage, photography, digital art, mixed media, and sculpture.

Yet when one sees the impressive works arrayed in this exhibit, their rawness and realness, it’s clear that I AM is not about America or Europe (where many of these artists have moved to) but about being a Middle Eastern woman in a violent and oppressive culture. What is so thrilling is that, unlike so much Western art, the theme here is not victimization—at least not the hysterical and angry victimization practiced by “artists” like Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who lugged around a mattress for a year to protest an alleged rape. (Never was a surname’s first syllable more apt.)

The women in the paintings, photographs, collages and found objects of I AM defiantly place their soulfulness, intelligence, beauty, and talent front and center without any postmodern tricks or evasions. It’s a bold act of defiance, presenting the audience not with didactic polemics but with talent. As the program notes say, “I AM THAT I AM” is what God said to Moses. These words from Exodus 3:14 are a piece of theology shared by all three Abrahamic faiths. I AM also represents the mysterious power of the feminine that the female artists are declaring to the viewer. It’s convincing and awesome.

The works in the exhibit are as well-conceived as they are diverse. In Mother, the Emirati artist Maitha Demithan depicts, via a photograph, a mother in a hijab. Her face is blocked from sight because she is peering through an expensive camera while holding a baby. In another piece,  Rania Matar of Lebanon, also a photographer, has placed side by side two photographs. One shows two Middle Eastern women dressed casually in summer clothes, the other two similar women in hijabs and abayas, the black robes that cover their bodies. One of the women in the hijab looks at the camera mischievously, as if knowing that the men who make her dress this way are ridiculous.

In the dazzling The Secrets They Carry, a work of gouache and ink on board, the Lebanese artist Helen Zughaib presents a white outer shape and the words written in Arabic over and over: “There are many secrets hidden under the abaya.” A mixed media collage by Zena Assi, also of Lebanon, is called The Force is in the Hands of the Woman and features a woman wearing slogans and symbols while starring right at you with quiet dignity.

Genuinely subversive and powerful without leaning on tired feminist clichés, I AM is a graceful and politically important exhibit. It makes our American attempts at political art—the ridiculous performance art of millionaire athletes kneeling at football games, the ham-fisted movie agitprop, the flower-era sloganeering, the mattresses—seem irrelevant by comparison. I AM is open through October 22 at the Katzen Arts Center of the American University.