The Fertile Crescent: Challenging stereotypes of Middle Eastern women

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger

On a midsummer day, Ferris Olin and Judy Brodsky sit on Brodsky’s Princeton deck, surrounded by hydrangeas that have just opened their enormous white blooms. The co-founders and co-directors of the Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers are updating a visitor on The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society – a series of exhibitions, screenings, readings, performances and lectures. The project is an unprecedented collaboration of arts and educational institutions as well as libraries from New Brunswick to Trenton, and includes Princeton and Rutgers University, the Institute for Advanced Study, The College of New Jersey, and the arts councils of Princeton and West Windsor.

The title “Fertile Crescent” refers to the term grade school teachers once used to describe the Middle East, where agriculture originated, but also suggests the fertile ground for women in the arts.

The 15-mile New Brunswick-Princeton corridor is home to many Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as a large Jewish community. Brodsky cites the following statistics from the Arab American Institute, a public policy organization: New Jersey ranks fifth among Arab-American population centers. Egyptians represent the majority of Arab-Americans in the state; Lebanese and Syrian communities represent 18 percent each; and Palestinian expatriates make up 6 percent of New Jersey’s Arab community.

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People of Middle Eastern descent are victims of religious oppression and ethnophobia, and Brodsky and Olin make the case the prejudices are compounded for women.

Through the arts, Olin and Brodsky hope to provoke dialogue that will encourage a greater understanding and acceptance of a region that has been under suspicion and prejudice since 9/11.

The artwork presented challenges Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern women as oppressed sexual objects whose bodies disappear under veils. They have multiple identities as women, as Muslims, Christians, Jews, or other secular identity, and as members of the diaspora. Many live outside their country of origin.

In a painting at the Bernstein Gallery on the Princeton University campus, a dark-haired woman leans over a bridge to gaze at a river that runs like a wound between two worlds: on one side flow mountains of tapestries in traditional Islamic designs, and on the other, a grid pattern suggests contemporary buildings. The sky, too, is filled with Persian patterns painted in gold.

The artist, Negar Ahkami, is that small figure set against the enormity of the divide in “The Bridge,” on view through October 20. Ahkami is expressing her feeling of being a conduit between two worlds. Born in Baltimore to a family of Iranian heritage, and raised in northern New Jersey, Ahkami is assumed by everyone she meets to have an Iranian identity.

“…my approach to Persian art reflects the neuroses of our time,” she says. “My images of mosques double as radioactive power plants. The cartoonish meltdowns satirize the brutal Iranian regime at the same time that they satirize Islamophobic anxieties about a nuclear Iran.”

“The art is as stunning as it is critical, dazzling as it is political,” says Joan W. Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. “It demonstrates how important the visual arts are for addressing issues of compelling importance about women, gender, sex and sexuality.”

Other venues for core exhibits are Princeton University Art Museum, the Arts Council of Princeton, and Mason Gross Galleries and Mabel Smith Douglass Library at Rutgers. The Princeton Public Library and West Windsor Arts Council will also host exhibits. The events began in August and continue through January 2013.

“Collaborative work can be difficult,” says Olin. “But our partners have come together enthusiastically. There’s such a plethora of possibilities in music, art, literature, book arts, politics, and it attracts people of different interests.”

The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.


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