It is only a piece of cloth that covers a woman’s face. But I cannot think of another item of clothing that is freighted with as much mystery or otherness or obvious Freudian baggage or whispery biblical resonance or universal psycho-sexual potency or, these days, sheer bloody terror as a veil. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across a woman on the Tube covered from head to foot in a full black burka, through which only her eyes are visible, with her husband in western casuals beside her, ushering her hither and thither like a stagehand manoeuvring a Dalek, I feel a disturbing combination of fascination and unease. The whole idea of such a get-up is to stop you knowing who lies behind the veil. Yet the get-up itself serves only to fuel your fascination. Of course you want to see her face.
This, then, is the dangerous paradox at the heart of the veil. While censoring the spectacle before us, it manages simultaneously to boost our interest in what it hides. What’s more, Christianity is as beholden to the veil for its iconography as Islam. The curious story of Veronica’s veil, about the woman who wiped Christ’s bloody face with her veil as he trudged up to his death in Calvary, and found that his likeness had soaked into her cloth, was obviously made up — the name Veronica is a corruption of the Greco-Latin vera icona, meaning “true likeness” — yet it was used repeatedly to authenticate the invented medieval image of Christ with long hair and a beard. I digress, I know, but before we actually enter an exhibition in Oxford devoted to the veil in contemporary art, we need to remember that it is hardly an Islamic invention, and that the veil has a long and diverse psychosexual history in all our cultures.
Women in the West don’t use them much today, of course, because another thing the veil carries with it is a sense of ritual, and somewhere along the path of gaining an appetite for Big Macs, we have lost our taste for ritual. Nevertheless, widows continue to wear black ones on some of the more remote Greek islands, to indicate to visiting holidaymakers that they are in mourning. Meanwhile, confusingly, new brides in old churches are keen to sport white ones, which they lift to kiss their husbands. Thus the veil clicks on and off in our imaginations, symbolising death on one click and wedded bliss on the other, from black to white, from good to bad, confusing the hell out of us. It’s a fertile subject for an exhibition, and deserves a better one than it receives at what used to be the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, but which is today, ungrammatically, merely Modern Art Oxford.
The show, Veil, has been initiated by a group of artist-curators who have allowed the artist in them to outshout the curator, and therefore give us a display that darts all over the shop as it touches on its subject with varying degrees of appropriateness. Frankly, it’s a mess. Though you only have to turn on the news at 10pm tomorrow night to know how relevant a mess it is. I forgive the show much of its immense thematic disorder because of the rare atmosphere it has about it of scary cultural pertinence.
In Moscow, a collective of hacking subversives called the AES Art Group have been fiddling with their computer manipulation equipment to give us the ludicrous image of the Statue of Liberty dressed in a full white burka. She also carries a Koranic text where the declaration of independence should be. It’s terribly Russian of AES to come up with this unpleasant combination of political sarcasm and lightly veiled anti-Islamicism. Show a contemporary Russian artist a complex political situation with history-changing heft to it and they can be depended on to turn it into a cheap political gag. The fact that all the artists who make up the AES collective are Jewish is extra-unsavoury.
I can, nevertheless, see why the burka’d Statue of Liberty might have found her way into this selection. The rest of AES’s output, however, is merely anti-Islamicist and has nothing to do with veils. Thus, the collective also show us London as it will be in 2006, they say, with an onion dome crowning the top of Big Ben and minarets rising up above the Houses of Parliament. To me, this mock scaremongering was offensive, so Allah only knows what decent Muslim folk must make of it.
AES’s contribution stands out through its sheer crudity. Most of the other artists in Veil are transplanted from Islamic homelands but now live in the West. Farah Bajull was born in Iran, but moved to London; Emily Jacir is from Riyadh, but lives in New York; Majida Kattari is Moroccan-born, but works in Paris. All of them speak the right-on language of international gender studies, and various stretches of the show have about them the air of a seminar on the subject organised by Columbia University, or somewhere like that. Strike me off this course, please. Ghada Amer may be an Egyptian New Yorker, while Shirin Neshat may be an Iranian one, but neither of them gives you enough non-theoretical information to allow you to decide upon the final worth of their contributions. Thus, Neshat shows a woman’s face with Arabic script tattooed across it, but no translation, while Amer contributes a set of giant sewing boxes, hand-embroidered with a love poem that you cannot read. I felt I was looking at such art through another veil: the veil of calligraphic opacity.
The show works best where it offers up actual personal experience most directly. In the 1950s, the French photographer Marc Garanger, who was serving in the French army in Algeria, was handed the task of photographing Algerian women for the new identity cards that the colonists were issuing during the war of independence. Rather him than me. Forced to take off their veils and be photographed against blank village walls, the unveiled women of Algiers stared back at Garanger with so much raw hatred and such accusatory fierceness that you can see immediately this was a war the French could never win.
I also admired the work of Shadafarin Ghadirian, who continues to live and work in Tehran, and who is one of this exhibition’s true heroes. Ghadirian has constructed a studio in her house, modelled on those portable portrait studios in which 19th-century European photographers peddling authentic oriental fantasies used to set their action. Against a fake neoclassical backcloth she photographs the Iranian women of today in traditional poses, but with untraditional accoutrements around them: a vacuum cleaner, a bicycle, a television set. The modern taboo objects combine with the orthodox veiled women to create images of true iconic frisson.
As I said, Veil is an unreliable display. But in those few places where it gets something right, it is probably the most relevant show in Britain today.