The acts of controlling a specific group in a society, for example women, in terms of dictating what they should wear, how they should behave and what duties they are to perform, have prevailed for centuries. These examples can be seen even in Western societies that like to be seen as advocates for freedom and, more interestingly, in the responses of the intellectuals whose voices are a breath of fresh air.
The social issues surrounding gender through notions of camouflage, body, dress, and personal identity have been some of the core concerns explored by Cigdem Aydemir, a Sydney-based visual artist of Turkish Muslim heritage. She plays around with a particular piece of garment, the burqa, and people's perceptions around the image of it, especially in the media. For Aydemir, it all started as a response to the sensationalism around the burqa roughly two and a half years ago, when a mural in Newtown that featured a face covered in a veil with bold text written across it ‘‘SAY NO to Burqas’’ became the talk of the town.
There were numerous reactions to the mural and ‘‘intellectuals’’ voiced their responses in various manners in the form of forums and even protests. In one particular forum in Erskineville, while various points of views were being put by speakers and participants, a person wearing a burqa went to the stage to ask a question, then revealed his identity by taking off his burqa, clearly indicating that as there could be anyone or anything inside that piece of garment the burqa was a security threat. This event was even covered by local television channels as a sensational item of news.
This absurd action of publicly denouncing a garment became a turning point in Aydemir’s art practice. She had worn a hijab herself for 10 years and feels strongly about it. From her research, she also realised that there were no legal anti-discriminatory acts for Muslims and decided to address these issues through her art. Ever since then, Aydemir has worked in close association with the idea of how the costumed body works with and within space and has explored various materials, which come from her experience in fashion studies and the fact that her mother was a tailor. It is understandable that this idea of body, dress and the space or void between them, has led her to shape her art practice in general.
From her earlier works like Dressing the Void (2007) and Effacement (2009), one cannot help but notice an undertone that Aydemir deploys while building up an argument in her work. Her in-depth analytical approach to the issues demands serious attention, enabling the viewer to find it difficult to resist.
The body of work titled Extremist Activity brought attention to Aydemir’s art practice, in which she explored the concept of the body as an occupied space, creating a dialogue between the viewers (both in and out of the gallery) and their perceptions of this culturally, historically and politically significant garment and the women who wear it. The Mexican American artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña identifies “our bodies as occupied territories. Perhaps the ultimate goal of performance ... is to decolonise our bodies and make these decolonising mechanisms apparent to our audience in the hope that they will get inspired to do the same with their own”.
The artist, through various performances in this series, is aiming at the same situation where the burqa is presented as a security threat even though this concept is in utter contradiction to stereotyping Muslim women as powerless, passive and weak. One can draw parallels to colonisation where the body that is in power is trying to control the other body by subduing it.
Similar concerns are extrapolated through works like Site Occupied and Site Occupied 2 by utilising a Christo and Jeanne-Claude style of draping or ‘‘occupying’’. The latter is intelligently executed and even has an uncanny feel to it. The artist wants the viewer to enter and occupy her work and in this case, that same void between her body and the garment, similar to her previous work Extremist Activity (Ride).
This interactive quality of Aydemir’s works stands out as most engaging because not only does the viewer feel a part of the work itself physically, even for a short time, but also considers themself included in the dialogue which the artist is creating through the work. It makes us rethink our perceptions of a culturally, historically and religiously significant garment. Her engagement with the idea of subverting power structures that try to regulate what the identity of Muslim women should look like, speaks volumes.
In her more recent work, a video piece called Bombshell, for which she has received the Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize 2013 for an emerging artist, Aydemir references Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955). This piece is a beautiful example of how the artist explores an idea in a playful manner and presents it through a mesmerising and captivating iconic image.
In general, the idea of marginalising a particular group is in total contrast to what Australia as a nation stands for. I recently attended my citizenship ceremony and the words of the Mayor of my council keep spinning in my head – “whose rights and liberties I respect”. Artists like Cigdem Aydemir bring our attention to our country’s integration model which places emphasis on celebrating the contribution of other cultures to society, while ethnic and religious minorities are encouraged to integrate. Here’s to individuals who remind us to ‘‘advance Australia fair’’!
Born in Lahore in 1979, Imran Ahmad graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore majoring in Printmaking in 2001. Resident artist at Kunsthoschule, Kassel, Germany in 2003, Ahmad's work has been widely exhibited in Asia, Europe, USA and Australia. After migrating to Australia in 2009, Ahmad is currently enrolled in MA in Art Administration at COFA UNSW.