Review / Muslim artists evoke emotional connection

art / “The Inner Apartment”, Nishi Gallery, New Acton, until July 22. Reviewed by CAREN FLORANCE.

Excerpt from ‘Twofold’ by Hoda Afshar

“THE Inner Apartment” was curated by Nur Shkembi to run alongside an exhibition on faith and culture in Islam showing at the National Museum over the same time period. It is a quiet, elegant show that features three Australian women artists: Leila El Rayes, Shireen Taweel and Hoda Afshar.

Leila El Rayes, ‘Dancing in the crevice of Desire’ performance

El Rayes offers a performance on video and three still images. It shows her dancing in front of a backdrop of wildly colourful patterns, completely covered from head to floor in the same colourful pattern. It’s an exercise in inverted camouflage: demanding attention, fitting in to that space as something completely exotic.

Taweel makes objects that hover between sculpture, jewellery and architecture. They are small closed containers with no clear entry point. Some of them are etched with fine lines in traditional Islamic patterns, others are pierced to make latticed windows. “Sophia” is one of the former: a cube with beaten domes protruding on each side, scored with graphic patterning. It evokes Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, with its famous domes and airy spaces; if one could enter this shape, it might feel like a safe space. These objects are all the size to be held by the hands comfortably, if not fitting inside them. They are objects that, even to an outsider, evoke a nostalgia for place.

The bulk of the exhibition is occupied by Afshar’s gorgeous ethnographic photographs of Iran. There seem to be images from a few series here. One wall holds direct portraits of people: old men, young boys, young men, standing in their space confidently, holding our gaze. On the floor facing me in front of them, there is a free-standing frame holding a portrait of a woman standing confidently in the rugged Iranian landscape, wearing contemporary clothes: trousers, a long shirt, and uncovered hair. She looks straight at me: free-standing indeed.

Other images are more visually poetic. There are many that use fog, some lightly, others completely enshrouded so that the figures in them are only hinted at. Others want the audience to see small details. “Twofold” (2014) has a close-up of the heads of two people moving away from me, one is turbaned, the other has a head-scarf. The composition is balanced; the detail is the woman’s hair starting to escape the scarf at shoulder level as she moves.

Shireen Taweel with her work at Nishi

There is a mosque series: latticework echoing Taweel’s objects, beams of light used to evoke emotion, piles of sacks like bodies. I might be reading in too much, but when all news is bad news, it’s not hard to do. A couple of photographs show traditional artwork that has been destroyed: gouged stone bas relief, a wall fresco of a woman’s hair and eyebrows but no other facial features. Each one quiet but pointed.

The name of the exhibition is an invitation to a private space. These artists are inviting the audience into a different way of looking at Muslim culture, beyond cliché and beyond a simple view of otherness. It’s not just about women, but then again it’s all about them. It’s full of the nostalgia of emigration but in an engaging way, inviting the thought that home is an ever-shifting space and faith is an anchor. They are offering reality and evoking emotional connection, hoping to push through surface tension.

The Nishi Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday , 11am-3pm. It’s very much worth an expedition to New Acton to see it before it closes.  


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