EMihrab: Portraits of Arab Women
In mosque architecture, a lavishly decorated niche called mihrab serves as a holy compass that orients worshippers towards Mecca while they pray. An older meaning that pre-dates Islam identifies a mihrab as a place to retreat to in prayer, a hermitage. In my work the mihrab appears as a shrine-like structure devoted to a single human subject: an Arab woman and her connection to the divine.
Suspended sheets of glassine paper form a structure that holds a life-size portrait and a prayer rug. Audible from afar, a woman’s voice chants the Arabic call to prayer. Up close, brightly colored paper sheets, screen-printed in pink, red, and gold, rustle as people move into the mihrab. At the threshold, the light changes. More chanting voices can be heard.
Mihrab departs from traditional mosque imagery because I create figurative representation, which is controversial in Islamic art. Portraying women in a sacred space raises another controversy: though women have been present and played powerful roles in the early history of Islam, their spirituality and historical significance have since been diminished. In Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, traces of the feminine as powerful remain when the devout describe themselves as "brides of God." I seek to remember those moments and change the emphasis of how stories about Muslim women are usually told. I resist belittling or erasing women's roles and aim to restore them to a central place in the faith that has shaped the Arab world for the past fourteen centuries.
I am conducting interviews with four Arab-Minnesotan women with roots in Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. I am using the mihrab as a symbol to signify the motivating spark for each woman’s passion. The mihrab is eight by ten square feet and eight to twelve feet in height. All structures reference Islamic architecture such as domes, arches, and pillars as well as geometric ornamentation. The design of the niche and the visual symbols inside are relevant to each woman’s life experiences: one participant, who unlike most Saudi women, is unveiled still holds a deep-seated faith that God will always direct her to the good path. Her mihrab features Tinkerbelle, a Disney character many Saudis of her generation grew up with and whose self-sufficient spirit she longs for.
The women’s physical belongings and their favorite objects also inform the work. My Moroccan subject held a traditional tea set inherited from a now deceased mother very dear. Her mihrab features a papier-mâché tea set symbolizing this relationship. The Syrian woman gave me a song her father had written in honor of her mother, performed by her sisters. The song will play in her mihrab. I collect and translate the personal stories into sketches, mock-up models, and finally life size artwork. Held by the mihrab, the artifacts together with prayer rugs and a visual representation of each woman create three-dimensional portraits.
The prayer rugs point to the direction of Mecca and borrow design elements from their traditional counterparts. In addition, they contain narratives pertinent to each woman portrayed. One rug contains French and English translations of a Quranic verse stating that a Muslim can pray anywhere. Another contains math equations. Each rug’s symbols conjure the essence of the woman’s personality. The portrait is reminiscent of the subject’s personal style and taste. Portraits use painting and screen-printing.
The mihrabs relate to my autobiography. They describe my own struggle with gender discrimination at home as well as my embrace of the cultural practices I left behind. As a diaspora artist, my awareness of identity is heightened. As an insider and outsider of Arab culture, I examine the lives of Arab-American women as people we can identify with and understand. I seek to represent the specificity of Arab women's experiences, insisting they are just ordinary human beings.
This work speaks to audiences with different degrees of familiarity with Arab cultures and the history and impact of Islam. Arab audiences may be familiar stories of women in early Islam. The work tests their sensibility of figurative art. For outside audiences, the work offers an opportunity to see beyond stereotypes of oppression (without denying the reality of women’s oppression) and Islamophobia. It allows a glimpse of the complexity of grappling with the women’s roles in Islam in Arab countries. Mihrab invites a more nuanced, complex look at gendered relationships in the Arab world.
Edited by Christina Schmid
Details from "The Pink House of God" model
Arab American National Museum 2018