Beginning Sunday, The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky will host an exhibit that explores one of the most controversial and misunderstood aspects of contemporary global culture: the veiling of women.
Veiling, the covering of a woman's head, face or, in some cases, her entire body, is a predominantly Muslim practice that has generated complex and often heated international debate about women's rights, security and religious freedom, particularly since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror placed the practices of Islam under the scrutiny of Western nations.
Some tout veiling as innately oppressive to women, reflecting deeply institutionalized inequality, while others say veiling respectfully honors tradition and privacy, symbolizing deep religious mysteries. In April, the conflict reached a zenith when France legally banned wearing most veils in public.
Author Jennifer Heath, curator of the exhibit, The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces, says there are many misconceptions about Muslim veiling in particular and the practice of veiling in general.
"Veiling — of women, men, and sacred places and objects — has existed among people of countless cultures and religions from time immemorial. Yet the veil is vastly misunderstood," Heath writes in the catalog that accompanies the exhibit.
Heath discussed the diverse histories and meanings of the veil in a 2008 book she edited, The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press, $24.95). She later called on her experience as an art critic to organize a national touring exhibit, a visual companion to the book that features veil-inspired creative works by 30 female artists from around the world.
"The book and the show are distinctive in that they bring together, for the first time, manifold — sometimes contradictory — perspectives from numerous traditions, with the intention of displaying how veiling goes far beyond the narrow confines of one group or the prejudices of a moment," Heath writes.
Janie Welker, curator at The Art Museum at UK, said, "I had been interested in this exhibit for a couple years, and it seemed like there was such a strong response wherever it went." The exhibit has been touring art museums, many of them at universities, since 2008 and has received abundant praise from visitors.
"We're an educational institution," Welker said, "and the exhibit opens up so many talking points and is handled in such an interesting manner. It stimulates discussion about so many things like religion, art history and politics."
The Veil explores themes across three categories: the sacred veil, the sensuous veil and the sociopolitical veil. But the categories overlap frequently and engage the viewer to consider complex themes such as relationships between modesty and oppression versus liberation and freedom of expression, as well as private versus public experiences of spirituality, nature and magic.
One work that is particularly representative of the exhibit's aim is American artist Elizabeth Bisbing's collaged Veil Cards. The cards feature multiple faceless female figures, each wearing a veil representing a different culture or purpose, which, not unlike paper dolls, are designed to be placed over a central card of a naked female child. From the sensual geisha to the pious St. Francis, the historical diversity of the veil's purpose and uses are on display.
Another iconic work is by Canadian artist Anita Kunz. The pigment print titled Girls Will Be Girls features three women on a New York subway. One is a Muslim woman with her body and face fully veiled, the other is a Catholic nun in traditional dress. Between them sits a scantily clad blonde in a bikini top, flip-flops and mini skirt. The two religious women are similarly veiled, despite the enormous differences in their faiths, while the blonde is veiled in her own way: Despite her skimpy clothing, she covers her eyes behind sunglasses.
The exhibit's themes are as varied as its media, which ranges from painting and photography to sculpture, installation and film.
"The arts — all of them — are sometimes about the veil, and sometimes they are themselves veiled, vessels for truth or channels leading to the Mysteries, to wisdom and enlightenment," says Heath, whose father was a U.S. diplomat stationed at various global locations during her childhood. Heath was living in Afghanistan when she came of age and draws much of her scholarly and creative work regarding the veil from personal experience with Muslim culture.
"There's an insistence in the West that this is something that's forced on women, and it isn't," Heath says. "I mean, sometimes it is — in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, the veil is mandatory — but Westerners tend to believe that this is something that's forced on women and that's not necessarily so at all."
Mahmoud Shalash, the imam of the Islamic Center of Lexington since 1983, said of veiling, "It is common in some countries and it is uncommon in other countries, but when a woman is firm in her belief and she chooses to wear the veil, she is never forced, she chooses to practice it. The bottom line is to please God and not to please the humans, it's her choice to do it. She is not doing it to please a government or husband or father."
Heath cites other, less-publicized women's issues as the real battleground for improving women's quality of life in the Middle East, particularly access to health care.
"In Afghanistan, one woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth," she says.
"In the West, we tend to see women's liberation as being very public, that we can sort of become the men we always wanted to marry," Heath says, "but in the East, it tends to come more from privacy and family rather than from outside, and we just don't understand that and we see veiling as something that's forced on women entirely."
"It's as bad to forcibly unveil women as to forcibly veil them," Heath says.