Women artists respond to ancient Arabic poems in new show

A new exhibition asks nearly 50 women from some of the countries hit by Trump’s ban, to interpret ancient Arabic poetry on female lust

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Radical Love: Female Lust
Nouf Alhimiary (Saudi) this is the promo image for Female LustCourtesy Radical Love: Female Lust

During a time when one of the world’s most powerful leaders is able to ban migrants entering from Muslim-majority countries, it’s increasingly vital we hear the varied voices of Arab and Muslim women and their supporters. Luckily, this is exactly what upcoming revolutionary art show Radical Love: Female Lust is all about.

After Irish actress Róisín O' Loughlin found a collection of Arabic poems penned by radical women over thousands of years, mostly between the 7th and 12th centuries, she knew she had to share them with the chaotic world. Reading more like modern pop lyrics, the texts – surprisingly – aren’t too distant from the experiences of women alive now. “I wanted to show them in a way that captured their dynamic spirit…” O' Loughlin says. “Whatever external restraints were placed on these women, they retained an independence of spirit which is inspiring.”

Throwing away notions that female sexuality is only potent in certain cultures, the ancient verses demonstrate the fierceness of female lust, be it through sexual hunger, autonomy or simply having a crush. “Ranging from slaves to wits and princesses, they all revel in a female vitality and sexuality that is the nightmare of anyone with tiny hands,” O' Loughlin explains.

Championing both past and present female Arab and Muslim creations, 48 emerging and acclaimed female artists from different cultures have forged sensual modern artworks inspired by the age-old scribes. The results are beautiful, bold and brave and a testament to all kinds of lust in an age of divide.

From a feminist activist from Peru, displaced Syrian artists, a British-Ghanian filmmaker, an Ethiopian American ‘multi-dimensional mural magician’ and photographers from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia to Dazed favourites Rosaline Shahnavaz and Ilona Szalay, Radical Love will be a dialogue between the past and present while reveling in the power of female passion.

We sat down with O' Loughlin to talk about her first art show, the importance of multicultural art and the show as a ‘fuck you to fascism’.

“Initially, I hesitated to even mention the word (Islamophobia) because I wanted the exhibition to be free from this madness infecting our societies, but Muslims from seven countries have been banned from entering the US. Artists in the show come from four of those countries... so it’s just impossible”

What inspired you to first launch Radical Love: Female Lust?

Róisín O' Loughlin: Radical Love was founded in December 2015 as a platform to promote love through art. It was a response to what followed the Paris attacks; the intensified bombing of Syria and the associate vitriol directed at refugees fleeing the crisis and Muslims across the world. I felt like such anger and fear was dangerous, not only for the innocent who were targeted, but also for anyone who wanted to retain a sense of humanity.

How has your perception of ‘empowerment’ been affected by stumbling on the first poem, an 11th-century text by Wallada bint al Mustakfi? 

Róisín O' Loughlin: Well I kind of hate jargon and for me the word ‘empowerment’ belongs to advertising, it’s been co-opted to sell us everything from razor blades to sad little juices, so it was cool to come across someone with the balls to embody it in a different time… I defy anyone to read about Wallada without total awe. She was so sure of her worth that she had these words embroidered on her (transparent) tunic:

I am made for higher goals and by Allah

I am going my way with pride.

I allow my lover to touch my cheek

And bestow my kiss on him who craves it

It read like something Rihanna would do but this was over a thousand years ago! She (also) reminded me of Malala’s “All I want is an education and I am afraid of no one” – the unapologetic declarations of excellent women.

How do the selected poems act as an antidote to the Islamophobia we’re experiencing in Britain, Europe, and the US? 

Róisín O' Loughlin: Initially, I hesitated to even mention the word because I wanted the exhibition to be free from this madness infecting our societies, but Muslims from seven countries have been banned from entering the US. Artists in the show come from four of those countries, including Syria so, it’s just impossible.

Everything about the show is a fuck you to fascism. The poems were chosen free of any agenda, just because they were so good – short and sweet in their intense defiance, desire, and lovesick longing. But they were all written by Arab women, mostly Muslim, ranging from slaves to wits and princesses and they all revel in a female vitality and sexuality that is the nightmare of anyone with tiny hands.

They challenge preconceptions of faith, of class, of the female experience long ago. Whatever external restraints were placed on these women, they retained an independence of spirit, which is inspiring.

Considering the times we’re in, how is the body of female-powered artwork important in an age where misogynists with no political backgrounds get into power? 

Róisín O' Loughlin: Well, I think the times we’re in are partly the result of times before us burying the voices of women. We should see and hear more about women from the past, and just as importantly, women from other cultures.

It’s not just about art though – more than ever I think it’s important to celebrate the ordinary women and men who have faced unknown horror, seen their children suffer, not knowing what’s coming next, and who continue to live on without hate. We should not only help them, but thank them. They show us what humanity is capable of.

Radical Love: Female Lust burns at the Crypt Gallery, St Pancras, London from February 14th – March 5th. The show will raise money for The Global Fund for Women helping Syrian refugees – donate! Find out more on the Radical Love website

NAZHUN AL-GARNATIYA BINT AL-QULAI'IYA (11TH C) GRANADA

Bless those wonderful nights,

and best of all,

Saturdays

If you had been there

You’d have seen us locked together

Under the chaperone’s sleepful eyes

Like the sun in the arms of the moon

Or a panting gazelle in the clasp of a lion.

للهِ درُّ اللّيالي ما أحيسنها

وما أُحيسن منها ليلةَ الأحَدِ

لو كنتَ حاضرنا فيها وقَدْ غفلتْ

عينُ القيب فلمْ تنظرْ إلى أحدِ

أبصرتَ شمسَ الضُّحَى في ساعدي قمرٍ

بل رِيَم خازمةٍ في ساعَدْي أسدِ

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