New York City epitomizes the reconciliation of opposites: Rich and poor, dark and light, or high and low. Boundaries, or geographical, religious, sexual identifications account for the creation of the continents, law and individuality. Nevertheless, they drive people to war. Empathy is thus needed to temper the flames of difference. Artist George Lewis privileges this notion of empathy through a collection of sensually iconic photographs. The “Behind the Veil, Sexuality in the Middle East”exhibition recently featured at NYC’s VBH, 940 Madison Avenue. Valentino bought more than a few pieces opening night, and rich Saudi princes commission Lewis to photograph them regularly.
Penetrating the private with profound subtlety and grace, Lewis stays clear from administering a political agenda. Lewis’ deep interest in the human condition propelled his four-year artistic and spiritual journey to the Arabian Peninsula. Meddling with what he coins “the revealed and the concealed,” Lewis’ point of departure is human basic needs. “Everybody eats and everybody screws,” he intones. Subsequently drawing on this relationship between the sacred and the profane are his “Human Nature”, “Ya Habibi”, and “Curious.”
In all three strolls in an eminent scantily clad sculpture: a Michelangelo ‘David’. Manliness shooting through his every muscle fiber, cell and bulb visually magnetizes the fully veiled women treading the same path. Tight white swim-shorts on an exposed man wildly contrast the loose black niqaab on anonymous women. A large mosque serendipitously spanning the background of each of the three photographs further intensifies cultural symbiosis.
Mosque or no mosque, married or widowed, the quixotic women gaze unselfconsciously at the hypnotic passerby. They inadvertently take on the role of the gawking male admirer. The gentleman in all of these photos is the objectified sex figure to which all eyes helplessly gravitate. His allure shamelessly draws on the fascination of nebulously disguised humans, whose sexualities are visually concealed. The veil ironically enables women to feed their eyes and imagination, without being caught, or scorned. Basic needs could be tempered or repressed, but their seeds extinguish at death, only.
Student Sarah Alfaham, president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Toledo reiterates the ‘barrier’ quality of the Hijab. Women stripped of their clothes are in reality enslaving themselves to the men who view them as “pieces of meat,” notes Weam Namou, author of “Muslim Women Empowered by Their Religion,” featured in The Multicultural Review 2010. Namou highlights Muhammad’s caring concern for elevating the status of women: “According to Islamic law women have total control of their wealth, marry who they want, keep their own name when they marry, inherit property, and have their marriage dissolved in the case of neglect or mistreatment,” she notes, reminding society that Western men cheat on their wives, while the Muslim man “…marries another woman—for a crucial reason—and informs his wife before arranging for his marriage.” Westerners fail to deem the former as oppressed, even though Muslim women have the right to leave their husband, if she doesn’t consent.
Heretofore, the veil functions as part-shield part-disguise. Examining the full ‘gamut’ where anything is possible, the seemingly narcissistic male juxtaposed with local women, whose haute couture collections were limited to the private space, depicts mutual fascination or attraction. Humorous, yet charged with intrigue and social reverie, the man was a novice at bending the rules of life and love. The women watching become rebels in thought, violators of the sacred.
The veil reinstates itself as a potent, beautiful symbol in “Kinky Kandoura.” A nude man, wrapped in transparent bubble wrap hanging over his face and head like a bridal curtain, is alone. The vacuous black background highlights the weightlessness of such bubble wrap. Veiled indoors, the suspicious specimen derives pleasure from having the freedom to dance, pray, or lay alone. A charade unacceptable in the public space, a man so hypnotized by the veil’s power cannot help but indulge in its strange fabrication. The bubbles, perhaps an extension of the joy or levity so artfully endured alone, the passionate man appropriately sports a dark red scarf beneath the layers of meticulously engineered bubble wrap. Neither contrived nor invasive, Lewis’ genuine empathy and poise are rewarded with cleverly insightful photos that inspire in-depth discussion.
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