At an exhibition recently organised by interfaith charity 3FF, the Three Faiths Forum, I came across the photographs above—reconstructions of iconic pre-Raphaelite paintings (Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and The Bridesmaid by John Everett Millais). In intricate detail, the photographs have been designed to match the paintings exactly—the white flowers pinned to the bridesmaid’s chest, or the ivy on the wall behind Proserpine—except that the subject has been covered with a burka (even the colour of the burkas has been chosen to match the original as closely as possible).
Like most western art through the ages, pre-Raphaelite representations of women were formulaic and artificial—and the artists themselves were well-known for their indiscretions (particularly Rossetti). In both art and life, their treatment of women left much to be desired; women were less real and human, more archetype and object. Given this, could covering the subject of the painting become an almost empowering move? It denies the viewer the ability to turn the subject into an object—or does it objectify them more, by removing the sense of engagement?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how some people’s concerns about the burka—that it subjugates women, and doesn’t fit with British values of freedom and equality—could also be applied to many of our everyday aesthetic norms for women, like high heels and make-up. For me, this tension is drawn out in these photographs, highlighting that historically women have been objectified in both western and Islamic visual culture, but in different ways.
The artist who created them, Hannah Habibi (in collaboration with photographer Zarek Rahman) converted to Islam seven years ago, at the age of 24. “The pre-Raphaelites had a fixation with female beauty and a reductive concept of the feminine ideal,” she tells me. Does the burka protect the figure from the objectifying gaze of the viewer? No, she says, because instead of the viewer projecting patriarchal ideas of female beauty on to her “we’ll just project different things onto her instead.” The woman is turned into a political object instead of a sexual one.
Habibi didn’t particularly intend the images to be political; covering the women was supposed to raise the viewer’s awareness of the narrow-minded and formulaic representation of women in art, and perhaps make them focus on aspects of the painting other than the subject, which often get overlooked. But it’s striking that it’s impossible to present an image of a woman in a burka now without it being perceived as political. “I don’t have a problem with someone wearing a burka, just like I don’t have a problem with someone wearing a really short skirt, if it’s a free choice,” she says. “Oppression of women by society, religion, men—it’s always a cultural thing. It’s never religious.”
It would be interesting to hear other interpretations of these photographs—add your thoughts in the comment section below.
The “Urban Dialogues” exhibition draws together work by artists of different religions. You can visit it at the Red Gallery on Rivington Street until 14th October. Click here to learn more about 3FF, or here to see more work by Hannah Habibi.