The Veil

February 24th, 2011 in Archive by 0 Comments

The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces
Through March 11 at De Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara (408)554-4528. Website.

This traveling exhibition, curated by Jennifer Heath, features more than thirty works of art that explore the veil in its broadest and most universal contexts. Organized into three thematic sections РThe Sacred Veil, The Sensuous Veil, and The Sociopolitical Veil Рthe show aims to transcend current clich̩s and stereotypes of Islamic practices and to investigate the importance of the veil throughout human history.

The veiling of women, men, and sacred places has existed in countless cultures and religions throughout history. Veiling expands far beyond Islam and the Middle East, yet it is vastly misunderstood and is a battleground, today, for power and political agendas. The artists included in this exhibition examine issues such as modesty, oppression, liberation, freedom of expression, spirituality, nature, and magic. They represent diverse backgrounds, spiritual practices and points of view. Through their work, the artists in this show challenge, condemn, embrace, and praise the veil.

A visual companion to the curator Jennifer Heath’s edited volume, The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press), this exhibition includes works in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and new media. The Veil also includes an interactive component called What Does the Veil Mean to You? In this activity, visitors are encouraged to share their responses on brightly colored silk headscarves that are displayed on laundry lines.

Artists in the exhibition include Sama Alshaibi, Tulu Bayar, Tiffany Besonen, Elizabeth Bisbing, Christine Breslin, Jo-Ann Brody, Fatma Charfi, Juliet Davis, Rebecca DiDomenico, Yassi Golshani, Ana Maria Hernando, Valari Jack, Tsehai Johnson, Tania Kamal-Eldin, Deb King, Mary Kite and Ana Baer-Carillo, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Anita Kunz, Judith Selby Lang, Victoria May, Aphrodite Desirée Navab, Brenda Oelbaum, Sara Rahbar, Larissa Sansour, Mary Tuma, Kim Turos, Kerry Vander Meer, Eve Whittaker, Sherry Wiggins, and Helen Zughaib. The Veil is organized by independent curator Jennifer Heath.Curated by Jennifer Heath, the traveling exhibition is a companion to her book “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics.



More from Jennifer Heath’s blog

The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces

September 3, 2010 by jenniferheath

I have mentioned “the veil of the soul.” Something of the kind appearsindispensable in Art. We can, at any time, double the true beauty of an
actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it. The naked Senses
sometimes see too little but then always they see too much.

– Edgar Allan Poe

Veiling – of women, men, and sacred places and objects – has existed among people of countless cultures and religions from time immemorial. Nevertheless, the veil is vastly misunderstood. Once upon a time, the veil in all its multiplicity was more or less taken for granted everywhere as, at the very least, an essential expression of the divine mysteries. Today, veiling is globally polarizing, a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between modern and traditional interpretations of Islam, a battleground for power and political agendas.

Yet veiling spans time long before Islam and space far beyond the Middle East.

The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces is a touring exhibition comprised of works by twenty-nine women – videographers, photographers, filmmakers, painters, and sculptors, as well as new media, textile, performance, and installation artists – each of whom considers the veil in many of its manifestations and interpretations. The exhibition intends to engage received wisdom about the veil and to reflect on the great ubiquity, importance, and profundity of the veil in its broadest contexts. The artists represent diverse societies, spiritual practices, locations, accomplishments, and attitudes. Their works converse with one another creating a larger and more rounded picture than is usually presented in popular discourse.

Visible & Invisible Spaces is a visual companion to and was inspired by my edited volume, The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press, 2008), in which twenty-one writers and scholars give first-hand accounts of the significance of veiling in their personal and spiritual lives and within their cultures and communities. Having worked with writers, with wonderful results, and having

an early background in the visual and performing arts, I wanted to see how artists might also investigate and re-vision the veil. That the anthology and exhibition are comprised exclusively of women is appropriate considering that the veil is commonly associated with females and – even when men wear it – has a feminine pulse.

To my knowledge, the book and 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. My hope is that these projects are transformative and eye opening and can help to alter superficial, exploitative, or hidebound points of view.

What is this pictured form, this monarch and this prince?
What is this old wisdom? They are all veils.
The remedy against veils is ecstasies like this.

–Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi

The veil is infinitely visual, yet it is also a means of concealment. The veil is itself mystery, even as it is the shroud that guards the mystery. In Sama Alshaibi’s “Witness,” a pregnant, masked woman stands in calm anticipation, the outer self dissolving toward the life growing within. It’s almost as if the mask is a caul, the filmy membrane that covers the faces of some infants at birth, so that they are said to be “veiled” and therefore to have “the sight.”

As much as the veil is fabric or garment, it is also a concept. Veils are theatre, illusion, artifice, architecture, masquerade, deception, alchemy, and transformation, dream, euphemism, and metaphor, depression, hallucination, holiness, emancipation, or protection. As Tsehai Johnson shows us in “Window,” veils are panes and portholes, inviting the light, restraining the elements, clarifying, or distorting knowledge. The word veil comes from the Latin uelum, a sail, cloth, or standard. The verb velare, to veil, means to conceal. Revelation comes from revelatio, to draw back the veil, to reveal.

Veiling is found everywhere and begins in Nature. It’s likely that human beings conceived the idea of veiling by observing Nature’s mysteries: in the butterfly’s cocoon – to which Rebecca DiDomenico pays loving tribute in “Wingcloth” – or in fog, smoke, and water – with which Tiffany Besonen unites in “i am water,” manifesting a poem by LuAnn Muhm on sewing pattern paper. (Paper itself can be an instrument of unveiling through writing or drawing.) Consider the veiled nebula, eclipses of sun and moon, the shedding by animals of an outer bodily layer (feathers, skin, horn), or the ocean’s waves that might have inspired, for example, the veiled West African creation goddess, Yemaya. Ancient Greece gives us the primeval goddess Nyx (Night), drawing the veil of darkness across the Earth, while Selene (Moon) rises wearing a veil.

Siduri, in The Epic of Gilgamesh, guards the sacred vine from beneath her veil. The pagan Arab queen Zenobia – no shrouded, helpless ghost, as the West tends to perceive Eastern women – defied the Roman army from behind her veil.

Veils have existed from antiquity to the present among Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians (from Roman Catholics to Anabaptists), Muslims, and many others, for similar reasons. For instance, as with Islam, Judaism greatly values modesty. Even the body has a spiritual purpose. Jo-Ann Brody’s clay book, “Yad Chava,” memorializes her late mother’s near blindness – her old veiled eyes – and how her internal beauty embraced and nourished the family.


Societies everywhere shroud the dead, and in her larger-than-life “Ancestral Excavations,” Eve Whitaker evokes ancient themes of death and memory, the gaze directed into the privacy of the tomb. Veils are the ethers beyond consciousness, the hidden hundredth name of god, the final passage into death, even the biblical apocalypse, the lifting of god’s veil to signal “the end times.”

The irony of veiling practices criss-crossing cultures is pointedly described in Anita Kunz’ witty “Girls Will Be Girls,” picturing a Roman Catholic nun, a woman in Muslim niqab, and a half-naked woman hidden behind sunglasses, perched in a row, waiting for a subway.

In another exercise in “comparative veiling,” Brenda Oelbaum puzzles intentions – with a playful nod at the children’s television show, Sesame Street — to confront her own post-9/11 fears of Islam in “One of These Things is Not Like the Other: Elizabeth Smart.”

Elizabeth Bisbing’s meticulously collaged “Veil Cards,” illuminate the veil’s presence in sacred and secular art worldwide and leaves it to the viewer – mirrored in a pink, vulnerable child — to try them on, to become them — the Virgin Mary, St. Francis, a geisha, Salome, a domestic figure in a Vermeer painting.

Helen Zughaib portrays the paradoxes of veiling and Orientalism (and in the process parodies Orientalist art) in her “Secrets Under the ’Abaya,” by re-dressing familiar paintings from modern artists like Mondrian and Picasso. In “’Abaya Lichtenstein,” she crisply summarizes the all-pervading East vs. West dilemma, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations, in a thought balloon: “I am not who you think I am.”

Tania Kamal-Eldin’s very funny, hugely enlightening half-hour documentary, Hollywood Harems, investigates how movies have shaped our abiding fantasies about the character of women in the East by fusing Arab, Persian, Indian, and Chinese women into one exotic creature (mostly, in fact, Jewish, Italian, or Irish actresses).

Christine Breslin’s gentle interviews with Muslim-American teenagers in “Beyond the Veil” about why they cover – or don’t – brings us closer to realizing the ordinary humanity of Muslims, too often dismissed, despised, and labeled as the enemy.

Throughout history, the veil has signified rank, religion, and marital status, or indicated that the wearer belongs to a specific ethnic group. Headdresses often serve similar purposes, from displaying class to practical functions of protection from the elements. In Victoria May’s “Headgear,” the artist examines, among other things, sinister aspects of head coverings: the absolute authority indicated by the priest’s hood, the gagging of a bonneted daughter.

In contemplating Kerry Vander Meer’s nuanced “X,” we see how hair is a natural veil. We flaunt or shave or hide it; it is seduction, vanity, a spiritual symbol and a political tool.

Inanna, Sumerian goddess of heaven, is stripped of power, forced to remove her veils and raiment like flayed skin as she descends into the underworld to confront death. The video embedded in Kim Turos’ tabletop theatre, “Journey to the Netherworld,” gives us a contemporary version of this ancient myth of fertility and renewal, as we watch a pregnant
dancer embrace the roots and branches of beginnings. And Fatma Charfi’s soundless performance, “Another Space,” blossoms into realms of rebirth and ascent, step by step, the artist encased and buoyed by layers of white tulle.

Veiling is often related to prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was masked and veiled behind vapors of underground gases. The Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, described two grades of initiates, those-who-listen and those-who-learn. Listeners located themselves behind a veil. The Islamic Ummayad rulers enjoyed music played behind a veil, for “listening stirred the heart to see the divine.” In such a way, a child is transported during Sunday mass by the cooing and flapping of pigeons in Mary Kite’s and Ana Baer-Carillo’s collaborative film poem, “The Allure of Vanish.”

Carved figures or paintings of Ishtar, chief goddess of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and her Phoenician counterpart, Astarte, as well as Isis, Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood, are often found veiled, their wide, all-seeing eyes framed in black. Traditions of veiled fertility goddesses may lead us to wedding veils, a custom still treasured by women in the West, and which Juliet Davis questions in her hilarious and biting newmedia piece, “Altar-ations.”

Why do people veil their heads when worshipping the gods? The answer is simple: to separate themselves from the profane and to live only in the sacred world, for seeing is itself a form of contact.

Visible and Invisible Spaces is neither a documentary exhibition nor a costume show. Indeed, there are relatively few textiles here, with the exception of Mary Tuma’s “Homes for the Disembodied,” Judith Selby Lang’s “Equivalents” and Ana María Hernando’s “Reina.”

Tuma’s majestic, sheltering “Homes for the Disembodied” speaks of the veiled and diasporic Palestinian community, of dignity in devastation. Voice is also given to the voiceless in Deb King’s new-media “dreamSweeper,” about the disappeared communities of Native American women.

In “Equivalents,” Lang exposes the fragility and invisibility that accompanies old age in a youth-adoring culture. Ageism — along with sexism and Orientalism – is leveled with one well-aimed blow in Sherry Wiggins’ “me and James Bond,” which juxtaposes unglamorous middle age against exotic belly dancers, and the gorgeous movie stars of the film From Russia with Love.

“Reina” is a collaboration between Hernando and the deeply sequestered Carmelite Cloistered Nuns of the Monastery of Santa Teresa in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The contemplative life of women religious is also considered – and honored – in Valari Jack’s “Quiet Seasons of Grace: A Year in the Life of the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

In “Confinement,” Shakuntala Kulkarni faces a much different solitude: frightening isolation, imprisonment, and the impounding of the soul during a war.

In some places, the veil is mandated. In others, it is outlawed. Tulu Bayar’s DVD, “Confluence,” explores current push-me-pull-you events in Turkey, where – to oversimplify an immensely complex issue — the society is torn between modernity and tradition, and where some women who wish to veil have taken to wearing wigs – not unlike Hasidic Jewish women.

The bodies of women have always been combat zones and today the veil is a spoil of cultural – and actual – war. When veiling is forced, then enforced, it is repression, but it can also be a symbol of resistance.

Sara Rahbar’s powerful “Oppression Series (2)” confronts the jingoism and flagwaving, in this case by Iran and the U.S., which inevitably plays out on women’s freedom. In contrast to the suffocations of patriotism and patriarchy, the artist offers a bright pomegranate, thought in some traditions to cleanse the heart of evil.

In “The Women,” Yassi Golshani shaped hundreds of chadored figures out of papier maché made from Iranian newspapers, a commentary on censorship of the press, as well as the subjugation of Iranian women. The little figures are also reminiscent of cocoons, perhaps suggesting hope for a breakthrough.

In “Super East-West Woman: Living On the Axis Fighting Evil Everywhere,” Aphrodite Désirée Navab transforms herself into a comic-book heroine , turning her blue chador into “a cape of agency” and — !KAPOW! – she K.O.s the purveyors of hatred.

In “At Home, Chilling,” Larissa Sansour pokes fun at irrational fears of the Other, while she negotiates pastoral Denmark wearing a keffiyeh, the commonplace headcovering of Palestinian men, representative to the West of terrorists and suicide bombers.

Although the U.S. is a made up of immigrants from across the globe, Americans are frequently xenophobic. Racism is an abiding national shame and sorrow. “Reinterpreting the Middle East,” curated by Arab-American artist May Hariri Aboutaam, is a portfolio of original prints by twenty-three artists from diverse backgrounds who were asked to consider issues of occupation, diaspora, displacement, oppression, and more. The portfolio acts somewhat as ballast for the exhibition. Both strive head-on to scrutinize the suppositions with which we judge unfamiliar experiences, behaviors, and beliefs.

“Dress Codes and Modes: Women’s Dress in Some Muslim Countries and Communities,” an interactive Powerpoint presentation created by Women Living Under Muslim Laws International Solidarity Network, serves much the same purpose and is above all an educational tool that looks at dress codes as among the crucial elements contributing to the construction of a so-called “Muslim” identity.

Vision is through the veil and inescapably so.

–Ibn Al-Arabi

Visible & Invisible Spaces began its journey around the United States in 2008 (a calendar can be found on the Web site, The exhibition has received praise everywhere it’s been (viewer comments can be found on our Web site). I can hardly do justice in this space to these magnificent artists, so each provides her own statement articulating her thoughts, inspirations, and motivations.

The veil of illusion has been cut away.
And I shall not go out wandering any more.

–Sri Guru Grath Sahib

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. To be veiled is, to some degree, to be unseen, the condition of both attraction and repulsion. It is the artist’s task to identify the obstacles and maneuver through visible and invisible spaces.

Jennifer Heath is an independent scholar, award-winning cultural journalist, critic, curator, and activist. She is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction. She has written extensively about art and social justice. Her many exhibitions include the much acclaimed touring show, The Art We Love to Hate: Black Velvet.

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