Faceless, the silent image hanging at the entrance spoke a thousand words.
Words which the artist Husam Al-Deen wanted viewers to comfortably exchange and discuss on the heavy topic of veiled Muslim women who receive much attention from Western politicians, media and academics.
Currently displayed at London’s P21 Gallery, a small but perfectly focused number of works that feature nine female silhouettes were brought by reAct, an innovative programme that promotes dialogue between the East and West.
“I never try and be not controversial. I don’t mind making a statement with my work, and I’m in support of people coming to their own conclusions through criticising my work, and that’s probably the best response, it gets a discussion going, that’s probably why I do it all, to be honest with you.”
The British-Iraqi photographer wants his unique twist to contemporary art to spark conversations, whether it be politically-charged or controversial to change the discourse around veiled Muslim women, his art needed to match the intensity of the news everyone is consuming.
Influenced by minimalist surrealist theory, the black and white photographs brim with suspense and more than enough blank space to disrupt one’s mind to fill with thoughts and, perhaps more telling, enable attendees to discover works that defy the glum stereotype of women in hijabs tirelessly portrayed in the Western media.
Being political is inevitable for an artist like him, he says.
“My identity alone is political.”
“Once I tell someone I’m Iraqi, I can see their mind just flying around with media portrayals of anyone who identifies themselves as one.”
Al-Deen explained how although the end-product is always important to celebrate, for the artist, what matters more is hearing the unvarnished truths people have to say.
“That’s what makes me passionate about it all, I’ve noticed that conversations can sometimes be had with certain people but sometimes there just needs to be a spark for that to happen.”
It’s a social pattern he observed that people within their own environment find it easier and far safer to have such provocative and meaningful conversations, but when suddenly put in a different setting outside their comfort zone, he says everyone is careful not to say the wrong things, and therefore, the gallery is the perfect communicative space to allow people to have a conversation that they feel uneasy having elsewhere.
Al-Deen is ready for his images to launch such conversations.
The collection of photographs is paying tribute to the powerful women in his life.
“I’m the first person to be in support of female empowerment whether it’s a female Muslim, a female veiled woman, non-veiled women, as a whole basically.”
“You always hear what men have done and been towards Middle Eastern Muslim women, which I’m aware of. But because I have never felt that way towards any woman, I felt the need to do a counter-narrative because I feel there needs to be something different coming out of a man on this subject.”
The most intimate, a close-up image of his elderly mother’s face, is meticulously hung high behind the glass wall.
In it, she is wrapped in a scarf framing her heavy features, a map of lived experience through which her sensitive yet subtle strength is depicted and hard to shatter, while her averted gaze conveys a musing preoccupation.
He says he is portraying his mother as she is.
Narrating the harsh reality his mother had confronted, he shares: “Before the exhibition, my mum told me some things she’d never told me before.”
“When she first came to this country in the 80s, she was living in Manchester, where she came back home one day to find someone had left a pig’s head outside the house. Although it was a long time ago, it still happened, and a lot has got to do with the fact that she’s a veiled, Muslim woman.”
He adds that recently he was presented a video of a Brexit Party official who was recorded bragging about trying to bury a pig’s head under a mosque.
Undercover filming by Channel 4 News captured the racist rant just days after Nigel Farage told voters his party was no home for people with “extreme views”.
“I was shocked because what’s happened 30 years ago, in some ways, not much has changed, there are still people carrying the same extreme views.”
Al-Deen aims for his project that re-interprets the veiled Muslim female aesthetic to ultimately shift people’s views and perspectives of this piece of fabric and – by extension – the Muslim woman.
He is aware of how using Muslim women as art can be significantly unsettling, particularly in his position as a man in the context of his religion, Islam, as the purpose of the veil is widely believed to conceal the women’s beauty.
However, this didn’t stop Al-Deen from addressing the controversies over head coverings in Islam using his photography skills, pushing boundaries at both ends of society’s spectrum.
“I’m a man, it’s the first thing people pointed and asked ‘are you sure you want to do a topic-based entirely on Muslim women?’”
“But that’s really why I wanted to pursue this; it’s been done with reverence to show how a man perceives Muslim women on a broader perspective in today’s society based on negatives even I’ve witnessed men do.”
He intends for viewers to be willing to dive in past what they may find uncomfortable or even offensive to discover the context of his body of work.
All his pieces are untitled and have no explanation for viewers to read, allowing them to take time to understand what his art is depicting by piercing their consciousness till they question their own way of thinking, and perhaps this way, they can find that his motivations are not what they may initially think, he explains.
“I hope I’m doing the idea justice with my pieces of work that makes you sit and think rather than just seeing a piece and walking past it.”
“I’ve tread carefully to remain respectful and remain aware of how I’m undertaking the project. One image is my mum herself, and the rest is a friend, who I would like to say is the youthful interpretation of my mother.”
He says it’s also why he considered minimalism the most appropriate theme, its simplicity, and play on light suggests a deep calmness and Muslim women in their raw power.
“With this topic area, it’s something that made sense to me. I think minimalism in art is always about meditating upon the work,” Al-Deen adds.
“It’s looking at work but reflecting rather than trying to decipher what someone is saying, I felt it was in line with the idea that I wanted to achieve, which is asking people to sit and think about how they view the people they either know or see.”
“Are you able to sit there and reflect and see if you hold any prejudices upon these people, and what is that based on? It tends to be quite meditative.”
He considers himself a minority within a minority; an Iraqi Muslim Arab so there is always something to educate others on the difference in cultures, beliefs, and experiences who can appreciate or empathise.
Sharing through story-telling and documenting is something he encourages everyone to do, as there are facts and ideas people can always learn from each other in their own innovative and unique ways, which he says social media has made a lot easier.
“People have been storytelling since the beginning of time and I think the way we’re able to do it now is amazing. That’s what’s always attracted me to films and books, I was always curious about how a person lived their life, how they overcame their struggles and how they succeeded against the odds.”
“Journalism is storytelling, filmmaking is storytelling, and photography is the medium I’m using to tell mine, and veiled Muslim women is a big part of mine”
reACT – Unveiled is being displayed at P21 Gallery until 4 January 2020