Gender is a tricky subject to take on. This is evident in the new Warehouse421 exhibition As We Gaze Upon Her, which explores womanhood and the idea of ‘woman’, its definitions, permutations and complications.
Curated by Sara bin Safwan and Sarah Alagroobi of the Banat Collective, the exhibition, which runs in the Abu Dhabi arts centre until January, has ambitious aims. The curatorial text outlines the intention to “expand the notion of ‘woman’, often constrained by social, cultural and existential insecurities” and to investigate ‘woman’ as both “an idea and a body”.
The chosen artists, the curators say, have “resisted and reclaimed” staid narratives around womanhood. Their works “defy heteronormativity, providing an inclusive window into marginalised groups throughout the region, who face issues of discrimination, exclusion and exploitation intersecting with class, race and nationality”.
Rarely in the show do we see women experiencing joy or pleasure, though there are moments of levity, however, such as in Maitha Hamdan’s Precautions, a video work of her eating ice cream – an act commonly sexualised by men – through a veil. These works, as well as the more absurdist ones such as Umber Majeed’s kitschy Hypersurface of the Present – a feminist rewriting of Pakistan’s history, turning it into the first “Muslim Nuclear State” – and Emirati artist Aliyah Alawadhi’s surreal triptych Psychic Impotence, which features a languid reclining nude, are a respite from heavy-handed messages.
Still, the curators must be credited for their attempt to develop an exhibition that doesn’t simply follow the usual self-congratulatory, women’s empowerment campaigns. But to take on a subject as complex and contentious as gender, a certain specificity or locality is needed. Patriarchy may be all-encompassing, but it also recasts itself in different contexts. For a show that sets out with emancipatory aims, the urgency has been lost and the targets seem to be undefined.
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