THE CONTROVERSY OF MITGIFT
by DAVID HARPER, MARTHA KIRSZENBAUM AND KARIN MEISEL
When we first encountered Esin Turan’s Mitgift, it was early in the research process preceding this exhibition. In fact, Turan was one of the first artists we found who both worked in Austria and dealt directly with Muslim issues – immigration, alienation, and in particular women’s issues including concepts surrounding the veil. The power of Mitgift became a sort of precedent that we applied to many other works considered for the exhibition. It was beautiful, strong. The artist’s eyes staring out defiantly from beneath her black hijab and niqab still haunt many who have encountered it. Its power seemed to be derived from its simplicity: it is a portrait of the artist, completely covered except her eyes and a few strands of her crimson hair, facing the viewer defiantly. Behind her stands a stylized yet obvious American flag, around her neck a heavy strand of golden hand grenades.
To us, the work seemed almost too perfect as a metaphor for the stereotypical perceptions of veiled women, of Muslim women. The palpable strength in the figure, even with so much of her face and body obscured, made an impact we felt was essential to see in order to begin to understand. Of course, it brought to mind stories of female suicide bombers who abused the inherent respect women receive in the Muslim world to get past security checkpoints. This had precedence, of course; on the flight to Vienna to meet with Turan and several other artists under consideration, we had all read Fanon’s recounting of the ways Algerian women had used their coverings to conceal weapons in fighting against the French. However, for us, this work was never about terrorism. We felt all along that the work was not a call to arms, but rather posed a question about perception, asking: is this what you must think of me? In a post-9/11 world, the defiance of this veiled and be-grenaded woman was symbolically loaded.
The word Mitgift in German is translated in English as “dowry”; in the case of Turan’s work, this dowry became less about the bounty a promised woman might come with to her marriage and more about the burden a Muslim women must carry through her entire life, whether it be objectified by tradition, forced into a loveless marriage, or perceived as a threat, especially while navigating the Western world. In Mitgift, Turan utilizes the veil as a metaphor for otherness. This can also be seen in the work that ended up being in our exhibition, Livata, which is about the conflicts between homosexuality and Islam.
As part of the Muslim Voices festival, a pan-institutional collaboration between a number of major New York institutions, including Asia Society, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and NYU Center for Dialogues, there was a concern – perhaps even a deep-seated fear – that a work like Turan’s would be used negatively by sensationalist media. The image could have easily been misconstrued to discredit the message of the festival – one of peaceful, intellectual dialog and mutual understanding between cultures. If one media outlet twisted Turan’s work into nationalist, anti-Muslim drivel, all of our hard work could be for naught. Some of us disagreed wholeheartedly, seeing the importance of such a work made by a woman artist of Muslim descent, and the importance in showing it in this context; others, seeing the power contained in this photograph, felt that there was an enormous risk. The most fearful of us saw the tabloid headline clearly in our minds:
ISLAM FESTIVAL CELEBRATES TERRORIST ART.
The dialog about showing this work of art went on until, literally, the day the show’s installation was completed. Curatorially, we had hoped that our continuous vocalizations about the power of art and the freedom of speech would force people to see the importance of this work (notably, all had understood both its power and beauty) and past the associations with terrorism and suicide bombing. We were asked to not show this work, and ultimately, the decision was made to do just that. We had to inform Esin that we in fact would not be able to show the work she had sent us (due to the ongoing discussion, the work had been packed up and sent from Vienna to New York). Rightfully, she was beyond hurt and offended. Anyone who knows artists knows how they feel about the art they produce. We explained: it’s complicated – we love it, but. She heard: you are being censored. And she was not necessarily wrong.
Turan’s first reaction was to compose a text that, we thought, spoke to her maturity as an artist and person. It was a heartbreaking piece of writing. She asked questions like “when did art become not free” and wondered if we once again lived in a world where we “burn books” rather than understand them. She had every right. To her, we might as well have burned the work and left its ashes on the floor of the gallery. Her second reaction, brilliantly, was to show the work, but covered in an actual black veil.
It was a little foolish to think we could get away with such a prank, but the bold statement of self-censorship Turan proposed was too powerful for us to resist. Of course, this attempt did not work, seeing that a covered work could be even more inflammatory than the photograph presented as it was meant to be. Any critic, or crazy person, who might have passed by an uncovered Mitgift without even noticing it, would have to know exactly what was beneath the black shroud. In the end, Livata, rainbow flag and all, was included instead. It was deemed provocative, but not dangerous, and without direct associations to the never-to-bespoken “T” word (that’s terrorism, in case you were unsure). We can say, unequivocally, that not displaying Mitgift in the context of this show was the hardest curatorial decision any of us has had to make because it was emblematic of the inescapable mishmash of political correctness and the fear of terrorism and Islam in the US. However, this decision was made proudly, not a result of fear but rather from a series of intellectual discussions with scholars and professionals and with one another. Perhaps, though, there existed a sort of meta-fear – a fear of creating fear – or at least of perpetuating misunderstanding. To combat this was first and foremost the attempt of this exhibition.
Mitgift (Dowry), 2009
Photograph mounted on aluminium
Courtesy the artist