Parallel Orientalism challenges stereotypes
London - “Women in hijab are oppressed… Western women are easily accessible.” Such deeply rooted clichés are challenged by artist Fatima Abbadi in her exhibition Parallel Orientalism featuring black-and-white photographs inspired by American-Palestinian writer Edward Said’s book Orientalism.
Being half Jordanian-Palestinian and half Italian, Abbadi was always framed as “the other” in both Arab and Western entourages. Her dual identity is at the root of her inspiration taken from Said’s views about imperialism and the image that some people have of “the Other” built on prejudice and intolerance.
“When you step out of the Arabic sphere, you realise how much people do not know about Arabs, Islam and the Palestinian cause,” Abbadi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
The idea that Arabs are wild and inferior because they are poorer than the West and do not necessarily follow Western lifestyles is challenged through her pictures. “Maybe people in the East are happy with the way they are and do not want to mirror the West. Maybe they like their life the way it is,” she said.
“Some people in the West believe that women in hijab are oppressed. They are not aware that many do want to wear the hijab because they are content with religion or because it is fashionable.”
To create cultural bridges between the East and West, Abbadi presented exhibitions in Arab countries to challenge the idea that Western women are easily accessible. “We are all humans with many emotions and experiences but we are all equal,” she said. “I know both cultures well and I know it is possible to bring peace and show how similar we are instead of dividing and building walls.”
Coming from two cultures, Abbadi said she often felt like “the Other”. When she was in Jordan, people used to call her “daughter of the foreigner” and saw her mother as a stranger from an external sphere.
Based in Italy, she says she is still classified as “the Other”, with people undermining her by saying: “Oh, it is because you are Arab.” An inner conflict began and she decided to solve it through breaking stereotypes in her photography.
Parallel Orientalism is an exhibition of photographs in parallel, taken in Europe and Arab countries.
“I put situations of humanity in parallel and on equal basis,” Abbadi explained. She took photographs of girls in a refugee camp and in Paris. It is obvious the girl in a refugee camp is sad and nervous. The girl in Europe has the same expression. The feeling of sadness is common between the two girls.
The pleasure of smoking is seen in a photograph in Amman and another in Paris. In Amman, it is taboo for a woman to smoke in public but she is feeling the same pleasure as the woman smoking in Paris. Abbadi’s message is that no woman is better than the other and the cigarette is the same in both countries.
Motherhood is the same everywhere as Abbadi has photographs of a woman in both Eastern and Western countries pushing her child in a stroller while shopping and both children are annoyed.
“Parallels are important as it makes people reflect and talk indirectly with themselves,” Abbadi said.
A film camera was used to document for future generations. In comparison to digital pictures, a roll of film only has 36 shots and costs a lot so she asked herself, do I really want to take a picture of this? Is it significant?
She explained printed pictures are there forever, the same as books. “If someone urgently needs an ebook, what if there is no electricity? How can they access the book? In some parts of the world such as Gaza in Palestine, electricity can be cut for days. I want my pictures to always be accessible.”
Abbadi decides to take a picture if she senses someone is feeling an emotion. The more she watched people, the more sensitive to their emotions she became.
“People are not usually sensitive to pictures as we see many images every day,” she said. “For example, pictures of refugees and war pictures. People usually want to flick through pictures rather than spending time to analyse one picture. They don’t think to themselves, could it happen to me? Are they happy or sad? What does this person want to say behind this picture?”
Abbadi chose to use black and white because coloured pictures are more complex. “Each colour has significance. For example, red represents anger. If a refugee is wearing a particular colour, it portrays a particular message,” she said.
Parallel Orientalism is available to view by appointment through December 11th at The Arab British Centre in London.