‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’: Subverting colonial depictions & Orientalist fantasies of women found circulating on old postcards

Guest Post: Salma Ahmad Caller

My curiosity was piqued on a summer’s day in 2018 when I was walking around Spitalfields Thursday Antiques market in London and my eye fell upon an old faded postcard on a stall amongst the bric-a-brac. When I picked it up and looked closer, it seemed to depict an Egyptian woman dating back to the early 1900s; and, on the back, it had a stamp with a note written in English about women like her being nice to look at but smelling bad!

Born in Iraq and growing up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia before moving to the UK in 1990, I was always one with lots of questions and looking for answers. My Egyptian father and English mother have often been the starting point for my work as an artist exploring identity. Add to that my paternal grandmother was Ottoman Turkish whilst the Egyptian family possibly originated from Tunisia, and before that Islamic Spain.

With this background, I have for years been intrigued by the inherent relationships, power structures and connections that bind my past; and, importantly, the colonial link between Egypt and Britain that had a big impact on my parents’ lives and so on my life too. The bigger narratives always have deeply personal implications.

That day I didn’t know anything about the history of what I was holding, I simply assumed that the woman shown was Egyptian. But I began researching all I could about the ‘colonial postcard’ and was soon dismayed and horrified. The featured women could potentially be from anywhere, they may even have been European models dressed up; but, mostly, they were locals often coerced or paid to be draped in strange assemblages of clothing and jewellery, the stuff of Orientalist imaginings.

Worse was the discovery of the exploitation, subjugation and violence behind the constructed images of the women on these postcards from the Middle East and North Africa. Posted in the millions, possibly billions, images taken in the 1800s were still circulating around Europe into the1950s or even 1970s. I now have my own large collection of Egyptian colonial postcards of women that has led me to further explore the histories of the Nubians, the Ghawazee, Hungarian Egyptians, Turkish, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Armenians and Nigerians.

My search led me to learn more about what constructs the identity of these women and where they may have come from. I have now looked through hundreds of postcards from all over the MENA region as well as from Southwest Asia and accumulated a library of books relating to this troubling and fascinating historical document, which is not in fact showing any kind of truth.

I founded ‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’ project in August 2018 and so began Phase I of the project. I got in touch with other women artists as well as writers, poets, academics and thinkers who were all exploring identity within the context of the complex relationship between the East and West. I was keen to meet people with backgrounds that connected them to Britain and Europe and also to those places with colonial histories. I wanted it to be passionate and personal for each member.

As a group we began to look for ways to interrogate the painful histories behind the postcard women, whilst finding ways to get beyond simply seeing them as subjugated victims of a vast colonial project based on constructing racial hierarchies and imaginary Oriental Others. We needed to avoid further misrepresentation if we were to publicly share these postcards and prevent viewers from falling into the trap of experiencing them yet again as a ‘type’ of Eastern female posing as simpering, demure, over-sexualised, ‘exotic’, ‘primitive’, trapped in a quaint time warp, or malleable and ‘giving’ herself over to her captor, the colonial photographer.

That is why we all decided not to show the postcard women directly in our work without some kind of artistic mediation or intervention. Each woman depicted on a postcard has an amazing presence that somehow reaches out beyond the attempts to portray her in a certain way and we were each responding to that in our own way.

Phase I ended with a successful exhibition at Willesden Gallery in North London in October 2019, a very multicultural place to start our journey. As curator I wanted to have the whispering and murmuring of women’s voices haunting our art works, the photographs and the display cases of research material and postcards; as well as a play of light and shadow, projections and sound overlaying the reception and experience of the installations.

This year is Phase II of the Imaginarium project and I am delighted to collaborate with the British-Libyan architect and Arts curator Najlaa El-Ageli and the well-known British-Iranian artist Afsoon, to bring forth another exhibition.

El-Ageli brings a wealth of experience as she has worked closely with many artists from Libya and the wider MENA region and hosted exhibitions with highly respected international arts institutions. Her extensive multifaceted knowledge and rigorous interrogation of what it means to live with a colonised past and its impact on the present and future will bring a rich added perspective.

Afsoon has been with me from the start, helping to mould and shape the project and has been collecting postcards for many years. She sees everything from a unique creative angle and has helped to develop ways to open up cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. Her wit and wisdom cut through bias and prejudice. London based, Afsoon has lived and travelled the world and brings a spirit of openness into her art practice and storytelling.

Phase II is very exciting as we now have quite a number of artists and thinkers from Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, possibly Sudan and Morocco, as well as some amazing people from Phase I, who are Turkish, Irish, Spanish, Iranian and Egyptian. Once we finalise the group we will be looking for suitable venues and hosts.

The key aims are the same but we are now delving more deeply into how personal cultural stories, memories and histories of women are handed down to us. It is within this space that we often find the most transgressive, contradictory and marginalised ways of being and seeing that have been left out of mainstream narratives. The lineages of women have the greatest power to disrupt both colonial and patriarchal strongholds of knowledge and meaning making.

Ultimately, we hope to open dialogue and ask difficult questions. An important part of the project is the discussion blog that I facilitate online via Facebook that ranges over topics of Orientalism, Colonialism, Empire, Race, Decolonisation and Representations of Others. This can help in understanding mechanisms of how we have been shaped and how women came to be trapped in a postcard. But those women were not theories or texts. We are not theories or texts.

Going into the future, the aim is to grow in reach and presence, with each stage having different curators exploring new directions and dimensions. I like the idea of building a web of women working to radically change the narratives, weaving living connections between the postcard women and the project women, and bringing the past into the present.

As for that original postcard, I made into an artwork and soaked the paper with my Oud perfume…

To connect with ‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/476614479745226/

Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of the narratives of body that have shaped her own body and identity across profound cultural divides. It is an investigation of the painful and contradictory mythologies surrounding the female body, processes of exoticization, and the legacy of colonialism as a cross-generational transmission of ideas, traumas, bodies and misconceptions. Her work is informed by a Masters in Art History and Theory, having studied medicine, and teaching cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

For more: https://www.salmaahmadcaller.com/

 

Textural Threads: A Collective Show Redefining The Female Space And Emerging Art From MENA

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition forms an integral part of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2016. The AWAN is an annual event in March that celebrates Arab female artists in London, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and exposing their talent to newer audiences. The AWAN is organised by Arts Canteen.

United by what can only be described as the fearless feminine spirit, Textual Threads brings five strong emerging artists who will inspire, challenge and make you marvel at the different creative ways each has chosen to approach the topics impacting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, whilst offering internal transformations. With a womanly abandon in the use and choice of different textures and methods, what is pertinent to the Arab is revealed, with a great cross-section of origins coming from Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and one artist who is half-Algerian and half-Bulgarian.

From Dima Nashawi’s elegant illustrations that tell the personal tale of being a Syrian living in London, to the use of bold brush strokes of Arabic script on newsworthy photography by the young Libyan Takwa Barnosa, to the captivating digital prints on soft silk material by the Algerian Hania Zaazoua, these artists are reclaiming the imaginative terrain. They all show how art can be the cathartic measure that keeps one sane amidst the crazy dramas playing outside on the streets of a blighted region; or, as in some case, by looking psychologically within for answers.

The five artists striving to advance a peace, hope and love agenda, as well as celebrating womanhood itself and defying simple categorisations of what it means to be an artist from MENA are: Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Dima Nashawi (Syria), Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia), Hania Zaazoua (Algeria) and Takwa Barnosa (Libya).

Takwa Barnosa (Libya)

The young 18-year-old Takwa Barnosa is a Libyan artists who is still studying for her bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tripoli, but whose artwork has already caused a positive stir. Talented and inventive, she fuses Arabic calligraphy with different forms of mixed media. Utilising powerful newsworthy photographs that range in subject but concerning Libya, she writes over them with word messages to challenge the content of the story told within.

Barnosa doesn’t shy away from the difficult existential passage in which the Libyans find themselves, directly addressing the current status of political chaos, anarchy and general disorder. For example, one of her images hints at the burning petrol and the human costs entangled with its production. She also brings to the attention the unfortunate displacement of the Tawerghas in Libya as well as the drowning of migrants who are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her choice of word and vivid colours is always substantial and engaging, be it splashed on the digital image or painted on her canvas in various sizes. From the themes of death, to war and peace, dream and fear that apply universally, to the more specific issues relevant to Libya, where she comments on recent events and leaving them open to one’s own judgement. Her ‘Lost’ piece brings to attention the troublingly recent destruction of the Italian artefacts in Tripoli, with the Gazelle statue that was demolished by the attempts to deny colonial history.

Barnosa has given a statement to Nahla Ink: “Most of my works discuss the situation in the community that I live in. I have seen many acts and events happening and that are still taking place, especially in the past two years in Libya. I have tried to show the parts that I have experienced and felt through my artworks.”

Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria)

Meryem Meg is the 25-year-old Algerian-Bulgarian artist with a multi-disciplinary background and a specialty in graphic design. Keen on the themes of fertility, birth and the cycles within nature, she draws upon North African and amazigh marks and symbols in her work. Creating optical illusions and movement through the lines, colours and geometric shapes, Meg’s aim is to impact on the mind and create a mystical experience for the viewer, as well as to empower women through her visual affirmations.

In some of her work, Meg also challenges the Orientalist lens looking at the North African female and providing an alternative that is much deeper and far more complex. Utilising the local motifs that are used within textiles, tattoos and ceramics, she demonstrates the systems of knowledge and the ways in which the indigenous communities have structured themselves and told their stories over the eons.

She has provided a statement: “The works are a reflection of my Afro-European heritage where I am also making the contrast with a more contemporary visual influence including urban cultures. Exploring geometry, I use a gestural approach allowing what is typically rigid in structure to flow organically. The desired effect is to captivate and stimulate a sense of self-contemplation akin to a spiritual experience, created to interact with one another synergistically.”

Meg offers four pieces for the ‘Textural Threads’ collective show, two of which belong to a black and white series made with water-based paint on paper and the other two which have been created with acrylic, aerosol and rose water on paper. Using the ancient symbols with diamond, triangular and circular shapes, she builds a rhythmic feel with other lines as she explores fertility and life celebration with the joyful colours to uplift the spirit.

Dima Nashawi (Syria)

The Syrian Dima Nashawi is an artist who strongly believes that art goes hand in hand with social activism and is a powerful means for peace building and engaging with human rights. Although her art illustrations are very delicate, feminine, beautiful and intricate, they actually carry a very powerful message regarding Syria and the longing for return to her hometown of Damascus. Using smooth and curved lines in her illustrations, she attempts to simplify real stories and bring them closer to the audience.

Nashawi’s life and work journeys have so far seen her travel from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and now London, where she is studying Art and Cultural Management at King’s college. With a bachelor’s in Sociology, she has also studied Fine Arts and worked as an illustrator-animator for magazines and children’s websites as well as undertaking social work with the UNHCR to help refugees.

For this exhibition, she presents the incredible illustration fairy-tale titled ‘The Mystery of Names in Raindrops’ and other pieces. The former is an imaginary tale about a little girl Lana and her mother, as they enter a world in which a witch lives in a forest and oddly collects raindrops in a jar that are brought to her by deer in return for lashes she makes out of spider web.

Although initially the witch seems an evil character who weaves curtains from girls’ braids, Lana later discovers that she is kind as she also makes carpets and blankets from the silk of cocoon and camel’s hair. Significantly, it is in the names written on the raindrops that we find the real stories of Syrians who have been struggling against the regime or other radical elements, with some detained and others who have lost their lives due to the current war situation.

In six other illustrations, Nashawi brings her whimsical creatures: a man who asks a young girl about the meaning of the name Dima, an image of two lovers and the images titled ‘Waiting’, ‘Damascus In My Head’, ‘On My Way My Lonely Planet’ as well as the ‘Tribute to Reyhaneh Jabbari’.

Nashawi: “My work deals with the moments of complex emotions that I have felt through personal interactions with my daily surroundings. My art is a revolt against injustice and to support social and political activism and movements. I am expressing an opinion, advocating and telling different stories to break stereotypes and mainstream media’s narratives. The current power of art is in delivering messages about Syria that the world is not paying attention to.”

Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia)

The British-Saudi Arabian Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail belongs to a number of different worlds that have formed the woman she has become today. With a master’s in Photography and the use of digital processes, she looks into identity, the negotiation of personal space as well as in dealing with the interactions between the contrasting collective cultural memories and how these may pose problems for the individual.

Having been raised partly in Saudi Arabia and now living as a Muslim female in the UK, she ventures into the questioning of oneself and her potential as an artist. She weaves this ‘otherness’ into her practice and looks into the subject of self in an ever-changing global society. She is the Co-founder of Variant Space, an online art collective for Muslim female artists.

Al Lail here offers images that form her ‘Hidden Colours’ series as well as two images from the ‘Rooftop’ project. In the first series, she explained: ‘This charts my personal identity that is defined by my mix of cultural backgrounds, with a Saudi father and an Indian mother as well as growing up in Britain. It explores my attempts to accustom myself to three cultural identities, whilst imposed ideas of where I belong or how I should be cluttered my self-perception.

“The colours reveal the hidden emotional journey attached to the hybridity of the cultures I grew up with. The images were taken using a photo-booth in order to interrupt the space which is used to define identity and produces a conforming, standardised image, which I manipulated. The same image is then changed gradually in reference to the way my identity is constantly in flux. The colours act as a force or barrier to conceal and reveal the self.”

In terms of the ‘Rooftop’ project, Al Lail said: ‘Identity and space are intimately connected; space delineates the scope for identity. This is particularly the case in the context of Saudi Arabia – space necessitates the very ground for a coherent identity. I use the rooftop – open space – as a metaphor for progressive, liberated and open-ended possibility. By placing a young girl – symbolising innocence – in such a space, I am trying to describe how identity flourishes best when there are no barriers and no ceilings.”

Hania Zaazoua (Algeria)

Hania Zaazoua is the 39-year-old Algerian designer, visual artist and stylist. She is a graduate of Fine Arts and woks as the Design Director at Bergson & Jung in Algiers. She has also established her own interior design brand called ‘Brokk Art’ in 2012.

Zaazoua draws her inspiration from personal wanderings, be they real or virtual and creates work that flirts with a trivial dream world and explores an alternative version of the society that she lives in. Enjoying the use of paradoxes, she looks at the complex relationship between the cultures of the East And West.

Using digitally manipulated images that she presents on soft silk material – that is stretched onto circular embroidery frames – her work deconstructs and recomposes popular or historical cultural icons and manipulates the tales being told.

In the ‘Young Ladies of Icosium’, we see a vision of the timeless Algerian women, renowned for storytelling and wisdom. As leading characters, they all present both an interface and an interference between East and West. Set in an undetermined time and space, they allude to the themes of decolonisation and self-empowerment and also refer to Picasso’s ‘Young Ladies of Avignon’.

In ‘Wonder Lalla’, the artist creates an Algerian version of the warrior-princess super heroine. Whether contemporary or ancient, she is a multi-generational role model. The use of the title ‘Lalla’ is of Berber origin that signifies a mark of distinction for the woman. The other works presented in ‘Textural Threads’ are: ‘Discretion Zone’, ‘Mahmoud & Tassadite’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Zaazoua has provided a statement as well for Nahla Ink: “In a world where reality is fantasy… that specific prism, different and sometimes close, I propose an alternative world that is dreamlike and almost falsely naïve. I use clichés picked up from the media, literature material and films that have references to the West; but, being from the East, I create the reactive heroines, some who are real and others fictional.”

The ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition will be on display from 2-19 March, 2016 at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch, London.

For more information on Arts Canteen and the AWAN Festival: https://artscanteen.com/

For more on Najlaa El-Ageli: https://www.noonartsprojects.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016