The Vulvic Veil, Series I
“These veiled women are not only an embarrassing enigma to the photographer but an outright attack on him. It must be believed that the feminine gaze that filters through the veil is a gaze of a particular kind: concentrated by the tiny orifice for the eye, this womanly gaze is like the eye of a camera, like the photographic lens that takes aim at everything. The photographer makes no mistake about it: he knows this gaze well; it resembles his own when it is extended by the dark chamber or the viewfinder. Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze”
(Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, 1987: 11)
As a woman artist who has converted to Islam and worn a veil for thirteen years, I find myself continuously drawn to both pictorial and literary Islamic veil discourse, in an attempt to understand what it is that makes this mere piece of cloth that covers at least the hair, so overburdened with competing symbolism. The origin of this symbolization has its history in the establishment of Orientalism, a term used by Edward Said to describe the general patronizing Western attitude towards the Middle East. European interaction with Muslim women remained extremely limited until well into the eighteenth century, when colonial expansion began to produce a “Western narrative of women in Islam”. The colonial way of seeing Muslim women as uncivilized subjects who desperately needed liberating from their so-called “oppression”, seemed to grant European Imperialists with the permission to know and exploit these women in a sexual way. In his book, The Colonial Harem (1987), Malek Alloulah interrogates the psycho-sexual phenomenon that occurred due to the encounters between Algerian Muslim women and the French colonialists in the late nineteenth century. These veiled women were seeing whilst not being seen. It was the unseen scrutiny of the exposed photographer from the West through the peep hole of her hidden camera that was the ultimate threat to his manhood. The veil intercepted the visibility of these women and with that the activation of the woman’s phallus by the idea of that unexposed something. The French photographers felt compelled to rebuild their broken identities through the simultaneous reactivation of the male phallus and the deactivation of the female phallus. Their desire to remove the veil and symbolically enter the private realm of Muslim women was operationalised during the 1920s and 1930s, whereby Algerian women who were social outcasts were paid to model in various stages of undress against studio backdrops of fabricated harems and photographed. Hundreds of these photographs were printed onto postcards and sent by French colonials in Algeria to families and friends back in France and beyond. Despite the misleading nature of these postcards, they nevertheless transformed the veil and the bodies of Algerian women into visible erotic commodities to be consumed by the French and the greater European public.
My aim for this installation is to turn the lens onto the colonizer by focusing on the gaze of the colonized. I want to interrogate the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized in order to understand how this contributed to the symbolization of the veil and the identity theft of Muslim women in the Western historical context of Colonialism and which continues to perpetuate in our visual culture today. My hope is that within our current context, we start to develop a more critical eye with which to view the [mis]representation of Muslim women by the Western media.
I wish to acknowledge Mike Ormrod and Chad Rossouw for their generosity in loaning me their vintage cameras.