Since arriving in the UK from Dubai in 2010, the Birmingham-based artist Farwa Moledina set out to reclaim the narrative around Muslim women. “I think there is an erasure of Muslim women in contemporary art. There is a singular story that we find in the spaces of museums and galleries. There is never an alternative presented.
Moledina, who has exhibited works at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Midlands Art Center and also as part of the Lahore Biennale, creates strong and complex works that incorporate patterns, textiles and symbols. It is inspired by the work of the Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydiwhich is best known for its portrayal of Arab female identity, as well as writer Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism.
Her next exhibition, Women of Paradise at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, is inspired by the four women named by the Prophet Muhammad as the Women of Paradise: Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fātima bint Muhammad, Maryam bint Imran and Asiya bint Muzahim. “There is something in each of their stories that is an example for us as Muslims. Their strengths, their bravery, their faith and their independence. They are models. »
Moledina thinks Khadijah’s story is particularly symbolic. She was the wife of Muhammad and was instrumental in the spread of Islam. “She was a trader. The Prophet Muhammad was actually employed by one of his agents to go and do the selling. And noticing his honesty and integrity, she proposed marriage to him,” says Moledina. “She supported him emotionally and financially. It’s a story of independence and effort that inspires Muslim women. Most of the time, the story you hear is that Muslim women stay at home. They don’t work. They are oppressed.
Moledina’s work always begins with a pattern. She then creates finely detailed, often colored and decorated works of art that are inspired by the distinctive characteristics of Islamic design: floral motifs, geometric designs and calligraphy.
At Ikon there will be four wooden frames in the shape of a mihrab, an arched nook that indicates the direction of prayer towards Mecca. They are usually richly decorated and form the focal point of a mosque. In Moledina’s work, a mihrab will frame the silhouette of each of the four women, who wear a burka or a chador. The surrounding patterns and embroideries will tell the story and identity of women. “The design is long. I do 30 interactions of each pattern before I’m finally satisfied. A lot of it is small changes that most people wouldn’t notice,” says Moledina, “but designing these models is almost meditative for me.
Yet Moledina fears that by examining the exotification of Muslim women, she may also end up symbolizing them. “It’s a pretty fine line that I have to navigate, to make sure that I’m working on my lived experience, without orientalizing myself,” she says. “With this job, I felt a little responsible. I have a daughter now. I want to take her to museums and galleries and I want her to see herself.
Women of Paradise by Farwa Moledina is at Icon GalleryBirmingham, to November 13.
On a Role: Four Works from Women of Paradise
“This piece alludes to Maryam, mother of Isa, otherwise known as Mary, mother of Jesus. It is rare to find representations of Mary in museum or gallery spaces outside of the Christian imagination; she is always Mary, never Maryam. This work questions this assumption of neutrality by bringing a different look to this figure. The silhouette is inspired by the typical composition of Mary and Jesus found in Christian religious paintings.
Not your harem girl
“Inspired by the interiors of 19th century Orientalist paintings, Not Your Harem Girl aims to deconstruct the exotic and erotic Orientalist tropes surrounding Muslim and Oriental women. In particular, he seeks to reclaim the orientalist conception of the harem. The design includes elements from La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, embroidered text with the phrase “Not Your Harem Girl” and a henna design of the same phrase.
Nobody is neutral here
“This piece is a digital print on polyester, and the printed fabric on fabric results in a faint, imprecise reproduction of the original photograph. This creates notions of figuratively pale reproductions of Muslim women in Orientalist paintings and expresses my concern for the cultural construction and visual mediation of “the orient” by Western male painters.
“The wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Khadijah was a merchant woman – she is a shining example of strength, faith and independence for Muslims. This piece features her tomb in Saudi Arabia before it was destroyed, verses from the Quran about her, and camels to symbolize her work as a merchant.