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The Austrian Cultural Forum
"The Seen and The Hidden (Dis)covering The Veil"
"Art as Paradoxical Intervention"

Why Esin Turan´s Mitgift could not be shown within the framework of the
Muslim Voices Festival

The director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York explains why
Mitgift,
a work of art by the Austrian-Turkish artist Esin Turan, could not be shown
in the exhibition “The Seen and the Hidden: (Dis)Covering the Veil,”
still on view at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York until August 29,
2009.

The story is easily told, but speaks volumes; after heated discussions
among organizers, curators, and advisors, a work of art is not shown
publicly. In the photograph Mitgift (Dowry), the Viennese artist EsinTuran
sets herself against the backdrop of the US flag.  Her face hidden beneath
a black veil up to the eyes, she is framed by a necklace of gilded hand
grenades, and wears a determined, uplifted gaze. Some may associate this
work with various images of Islamic extremism, but as with most art, there
are multiple and more meaningful possible interpretations.

Esin Turan's work is represented in “The Seen and the Hidden:
(Dis)Covering the Veil” by another highly thought provoking image, Livata
(2007). The photograph is of a male from the shoulders up, who wears a
black headscarf. The scarf’s bottom edge bleeds into rainbow stripes.
Here, too, the visual language is highly poignant: fundamentalist forces,
in the Islamic world as well as in the West, continue to deny and suppress
homosexuality.
Turan was born in Turkey and immigrated to Austria as an art student.
She consistently focuses her work on overcoming stereotypes and bringing
cultures together. Both images are meant to question Western stereotypes of
the “Muslim-Arabic” world. In the language of psychology, her method
could be called “paradoxical intervention,” a strategy of exaggerating
a problem in order to recognize and overcome it.

This exhibition is about the veil as an icon of contemporary Islam. The
curatorial aim is to avoid representing the Islamic World through typical
Western views. Instead, we want to examine and critique our own -that is,
our Western- view, interrogating both our obvious and more intimate
prejudices and stereotypes. We therefore invited fifteen artists from
Pakistan, Iran, Austria, France, the USA, and Canada to present their
various and differing positions on the veil, and interpretations of its
literal and metaphorical meanings.

Their work was shown within the larger context of the Muslim Voices
Festival, organized jointly this past June by several major New York
institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Asia Society,
and New York University.
This festival coincided with the highly prominent
visit of the new American president Barack Obama to the Middle East. After
9/11, many years of aggressive rhetoric by his predecessor George W. Bush,
and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the political elite of the US is clearly
looking for new ways to engage the Arab-Islam world.
In Cairo, Obama attempted to make a new beginning by recognizing
Muslim-Arabic contributions to world culture and accepting them as part of
American cultural identity. He took issue with both the“negative
stereotypes of Islam,” and also with liberals in the West who believe the
veil should be outlawed: “I reject the view of some in the West that a
woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.”

In a way, we are witnessing nothing less than a cultural disarmament
process, the withdrawal of aggressive rhetoric, the search for common
ground and the rebuilding of mutual trust, espoused by the President and
echoed by major cultural institutions in New York.

For Muslims, Arabs, and people of Middle Eastern descent, living in the
United States since 9/11 has been extremely difficult. In Europe as well,
tensions are rising between the various generations of Muslim-Arabic
immigrants and the inhabitants of countries with so-called “Christian”
dominant cultures. Particularly in recent years, the xenophobic rhetoric of
various extreme right movements has been heightened by an explicitly
Islamophobic discourse. The situation has become more serious than the
famous German saying “Döner rein, Türken raus” (Turkish food in,
Turkish people out). The consequences of this attitude shift range from
headscarf bans to prohibiting the construction of Muslim houses of worship.
Even in Austria, where Islam has been anchored as an officially recognized
religion since 1912, the slogan “Vienna must not become Istanbul!” is
prominent.
Almost everywhere in Europe, women wearing head scarves or veils are now
part of everyday life. In Turkey, however, the discussion of the headscarf is
at the center of a constitutional debate.
Supporters of Ataturk and
other strongly secular members of Turkish society are vehemently opposed to
this – in their view - symbol of Islamification. On the other side, the
political forces that publicly encourage choice in veiling have been
gaining ground in recent years, while a growing number of women around the
world consciously choose to cover their neck, head, and face.

In France, where head scarves are banned from schools and public
institutions, President Sarkozy felt it necessary to speak out recently
against the wearing of the burqua.

However, Western advocates of prohibiting the veil do not recognize that
part of the basic human right to freedom of expression is also visual
appearance. They also ignore the fact that the veil is a piece of clothing
that links the three Abrahamic religions, and is codified in the Torah, the
Koran, and the New Testament. Explicitly, it was in the apostle Paul’s
First Epistle to the Corinthians that Christianity first forbade women from
entering the church without a veil. In other words, long before the Muslim
practice became so widely debated, Jewish and Christian culture had already
introduced the veil as women’s customary dress. In the 20th century, the
veil became an important symbol of left wing anti-colonialism when its
leading proponent, the French-Algerian Frantz Fanon, denounced the battle
against it, and Michel Foucault, while praising the Iranian revolution,
stylized the veil as a shield against capitalist hegemony.
What, then, does all this have to do with Esin Turan’s golden hand
grenades?

While there was little upset over Esin Turan’s “homosexual” (our
words) work Livata, Dowry became a real problem. The American partners of
the Muslim Voices festival strongly urged that this work not be shown. They
said it would strengthen existing stereotypes, and that xenophobic and
Islamophobic observers would feel vindicated. Additionally, they felt the
image would receive undeserved media attention, distracting from the
festival's main message of coexistence and mutual understanding.

This way of thinking is highly problematic, yet interesting, and is likely
in itself symptomatic of the American state of mind. What really seems
troubling is not the image – but that we avoid talking about stereotypes:
by not allowing a possible controversy, have we not missed an important
discussion and opportunity ?

This same attitude of (self-)censorship also doomed the screening of the
wonderful video Soyunma (Undressing) on a jumbo screen in Times Square.
Ultimately, it could only be shown in the gallery at the Austrian Cultural
Forum. Artist Nilbar Güreş can take comfort in the fact that her work is
presented in an exhibition that has received worldwide media echo. The
German weekly Der Spiegel and the New York Times reported, as did many
other international media, that ours is a show many would not have expected
to see at an Austrian foreign cultural institution.
As illustrated by Esin Turan's Mitgift, it is more telling to discuss
artworks that are censored than those already on display.  The
representation of a stereotype does not at all mean that the artist wants
to reinforce it. On the contrary, the exaggeration of stereotype is a
well-established strategy of artistic critique. Hopefully, Turan's work,
which would undoubtedly not have caused such anxiety in Europe, will soon
be shown with great prominence in the United States.

By Andreas Stadler, in cooperation with Anne Marie Butler

Andreas Stadler is the director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York

Anne Marie Butler is a freelance curator and art critic.