Women hiding in plain sight

I guess I’m on a little bit of a photo-project kick lately. I keep finding thought-provoking photographs online that thankfully distract me from opening yet another Facebook tab. Maybe this is growing up?

Today, I stumbled upon a beautiful series by Hossein Fatemi for The New York Times. As is typical for the paper’s Sunday Exposures, “Veiled Truths” is gorgeously photographed and smartly designed.  It depicts Iranian women through the fabric of a hijab, a head scarf that some Islamic groups require women to wear in the presence of men.

At first, I was struck by the beauty. The link opened on a full-screen image of an impeccably made-up woman in a hijab behind a film of red. The piece’s title cuts across her neck in a slash of bold white, seemingly separating her from the outside world. Her defiant expression is far from helpless — more like detached.

"Veiled Truths"

She and the women who follow look like dreams, caught behind a film of tradition and expectations. By showing them behind hijabs, Fatemi makes the statement that these women are rendered unreachable by mere pieces of fabric. Interestingly, most of the hijabs match the women’s makeup or outfits, depicting the garb as an extension of themselves. They are not complete without it.

Of course, some of the women choose to wear hijabs because of their beliefs. However, the other women are forced to live lives clouded by their government’s views.

"Veiled Truths"The text explains the project was inspired by Fatemi’s friend who was held by police in Tehran because she wasn’t wearing a hijab, which is required in the country. She told him he shouldn’t just take war photographs but should show what life in modern Iran is really like. Though Fatemi explains that Iran’s new, more moderate president has said that women should be encouraged by education to follow clothing policies, women still face police action for their defiance.

Fatemi uses powerful imagery to show the reality of these women’s lives. He uses the fabric of the hijab to represent the governmental control that denies the women of Iran the right to choose to whom they reveal themselves. I have read about hijabs many times over the years, but this series really drove home the experience for me. The title says it all: These women’s true selves are a mystery, shrouded behind a collection of thread.

What is art? Man Ray’s ‘Gift’

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” / Photo from greynotgrey.com

Way up there in the list of artistic concepts that have traumatized, appalled and downright confused the general population is Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp was a surrealist if there ever was one, creating somewhere in the space between dreams and reality. His readymades were found objects that were often placed in the gallery, separated from their original context and marked with a signature. He argued that by placing these objects in a gallery setting, they were now art. It was the ultimate in sassy, challenging the notion that art objects had to be grand, meaningful works that have received the seal of approval from those in the know. Perhaps the most famous is his “Fountain” from 1917. He hung a porcelain urinal the wrong way, signed it “R. Mutt 1917” and drove the art world crazy.

Deriving from the readymade is a work we just talked about in my history of photography class: “Gift” by Man Ray. Bringing this up is making me realize I have no idea what this sculpture had to do with photography and how it fit into that day’s lesson, but I suppose that’s a concern for my grade on the midterm and not this post.

Man Ray's "Gift"
Man Ray’s “Gift” (1921) / Photo from moma.org

The sculpture consists of an everyday iron with 14 brass tacks glued down the center. Apparently, Man Ray made the piece the afternoon before one of his shows opened in 1921, leaving it unlisted in the catalogue. It’s typical of his work, which used unusual juxtapositions to comment on social issues — see “Le Violin d’Ingres.”

But the simplicity of “Gift” has stayed with me. Man Ray took something functional and rendered it unusable. It’s now an impossible object. Since it doesn’t serve any practical purpose, it has to be art. With this, he refutes the concept of high art as the only kind of art in a definitive way.

Beyond the obvious juxtaposition of two objects with very different uses is the name Man Ray has given the work. This is the sort of gift a spouse has to sleep on the couch for giving. But deeper than that, the work can also be seen as a comment on middle-class values. An iron is firmly the domain of a woman, who is told to derive satisfaction and contentment from running the home. She should be gentle and kind, dutifully doing her tasks. By adding the tacks, Man Ray shows the frustrations of these standards. Women at the time were entrapped by the very role they were supposed to cherish, which is reflected in the violent spikes protruding from the iron.

Of course, I’m not sure Man Ray had these feminist ideals. Regardless, the plight of women was probably not his main crusade. But art is blissfully open to interpretation, and for the modern woman, “Gift” certainly makes some interesting comments about the usefulness of the roles forced upon women for so long. So to Man Ray, I say thanks. You’ve gifted me a work I can’t get out of my head. Touche, sir.