Take a window...
Take a representation of a window, any window in the Islamic world, be it one in a miniature painting, a photograph, a film, a museum, a poem, etc., and explore it as a mediation of something behind it, e.g. a face, the Unseen (al- ghayb), etc.
Al Tabariyat by Artist Sarah Al-Abdali
Figure 1: Al Tabariyat , window. 2018.Wood. 200x 100cm
Al Tabariyat (Figure 1) is a work by female Saudi artist Sarah Al Abdali (1989), depicting three women of the Al Tabari family. Al Tabariyat is the feminine plural of the family name Al Tabari known for their scholarly, social and economic contribution to Meccan society 9th-19th Century CE (Shafiee, 101). Descendants of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, the family were renowned "in the Eastern and Western lands" for their nobility and knowledge (Ghazi, 5-6). Notably, the family produced many women scholars acclaimed for their knowledge and wisdom. The work highlights the misconception of the role of Saudi women in particular (and Muslims in general) the obscuring myths of Islamic and Saudi societal structure and adequately investigate the capacity in which women and "Al Tabariyat", in particular, contributed to history over ten centuries.
The sculpture is constructed of a wooden panel containing a pane of six frames, arranged two rows. Presented in an upright triangle, three of these frames contain images in profile of women in traditional Hijazi attire, consisting of the typical dress (thoub), white head scarf (Al-Mihrama and Al Midawara), and the black Abaya. The images appear behind (or perhaps in front of) what appear to be framed, unobstructed windows. The interlocking inverted triangle of framed windows is devised with bars. The work plays on the idea of whether these subjects are inside or outside (both physically and metaphorically) raising the question as to whether their position is within a frame, behind a window, outside or beyond the mediating structure. Notably, the upper central window containing one image is illuminated by a source of light, appearing from the perspective of the viewer to come from above and behind the structure.
Patterson (2) notes that windows mediate between what is inside and what is outside with the viewer’s standpoint determines the complex relationship between the two. The attire of the women, conventionally worn outside of the home problematizes the viewer’s relationship to the work and images within it: if the women are wearing the black Abaya, we might assume that it is the viewer rather than the women who stands inside the window, with the women standing outside it. This correlates to the light-source that halos the figure in the central upper frame, appearing to originate on the far side of the frame from the viewer’s perspective. For Patterson (4), a window creates a portal to a different world. Thus, symbols such as ships and ornaments used in window glasses represent what people use when travelling to another world. In Al Tabiryat, the women’s attire might therefore signify the “other world” of their cultural and historical context. By interpreting these symbols, the viewer gains admission to the women’s own perspective. Similarly, the source of illumination might indicate the connection of Saudi women to their faith and culture as a sign of enlightenment. By interpreting this context, our construction of the image is similarly illuminated, and our impression of confinement and obstruction is overthrown.
Figure 2, Mashrabiya
The wooden panel containing the windowed frame is derived from the Mashrabiya, an architectural structure protruding from windows of houses that face onto public streets
(Figure 2). The Mashrabiya is made up of an ornate lattice that allows those inside the home to see out onto the street, while preventing those outside the home from seeing what is inside. As such, it performs the social function of mediating inside and out, domestic and social spheres, allowing light and air to circulate between them. In Al Tabariyat, Al Abdali places the pane of Western-style windows in the centre of the mashrabiya that would ordinarily be fully latticed and its interior impervious to the gaze of an outside viewer. The insertion of Western-style windows therefore interrupts the concealment furnished by the mashrabiya, cutting into its structure to insert a Western architecture into an Islamic one.
"Windows are thus important mediators between the inside and the outside – between the mental, social, and environmental ecologies within, and those without." (Patterson, 2)
Al Tabariyat therefore positions women in the foreground of Islamic culture. Al Abdali – a female artist – made Al Tabariyat in collaboration with craftsmen who constructed the wooden frame. The female artist stands “behind” the frame that occupies the foreground of the sculpture, originating it, just as the source of illumination stands behind the wooden frame that structures the work, allowing us to perceive the images contained within it. The process of the work’s construction thus enacts the role of women in producing the structuring principles of the society that appears to contain them.
Al Abdali’s deconstruction of the Mashrabiya therefore serves to further mediate the viewer’s gaze by highlighting its interruptive interpretive force. The veiling of the women surrounded by barred windows, and their positioning behind the structure from the viewer’s perspective appears to the Western gaze as a restricted design that critiques the restricted freedom of women in Islamic cultures, confined to a domestic “inside”, “outside” the social domain. According to Ruggles (132), In the Islamic cultural context the acts of looking, seeing, and being seen were carefully controlled. Al Tabariyat depicts what might in the West be constructed as the segregation of women and men in Saudi Arabia. This interpretation transfers the visual terms of the window into a script that bearing symbolic meaning (Ruggles 133). As a result of this transfer, the Al Tabariyat acquires artistic license to communicate differently based on the gaze of the viewer. The formal deconstruction of the mashrabiya is made to deconstruct the Western gaze based in a misconception of women's role being limited to childrearing and homemaking to reveal a collaborative interwoven separation of male and female social contribution.
Al Tabariyat communicates differently to audiences outside the culture and within it. Understanding the cultural context of the Mashrabiya, Hijaz, and the history of the Al Tabari family – and reading these against the Western-style unobscured and barred windows inserted into the structure offers a means of transport between interpretive worlds. Like the women it depicts, the work (an artefact of female social creation) testifies to the role of women in constructing their society. It articulates the need to deconstruct perceptions of restrictive Islamic practices to elevate the outside viewer’s understanding of women's status in Islamic communities, and in Saudi Arabia in particular. In contrast to the second-grade citizens of a patriarchal culture they appear to be to the Western gaze, Islamic women are revealed to play vital scholarly, educational, and charitable social roles. To the viewer within Islamic societies the work stands as an affirmation of the continuing role of women in their ongoing creation.
Patterson, D. P. "There’s Glass between Us." A critical examination of ‘the window’ in art and architecture from Ancient Greece to the present day, 2011, pp. 1-21.
Ruggles, F. Making vision manifest the frame view. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.
Dr Lamia Shafiee, The position of Scholarly women in the Meccan society, the ladies “AlTabaryiat” 1426 hijri
Ghazi, Excerpt from the book Afdah Al-Anam mentioning the news of the Sacred Country, paper 5-6