Understanding the veil

Laura El-Tantawy aims to dispel negative stereotypes about the veil


While many exhibitions are based on preconceived ideas and premeditated commentary, British-Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy stumbled upon a concept after observing her own subconscious. ‘I was travelling through several countries in the Middle East and India, and at some point I started to look at the work I had, and I realised there was a recurring theme.’ That pattern is the subject of the artist’s first exhibition in the Middle East, entitled ‘The Veil’, at Gulf Photo Plus until Monday February 18. Unbeknown to her, Tantawy had subconsciously turned her attention to the garment, capturing the veil in a positive light to reflect the experiences she associated with it while growing up.

‘The idea behind the series is to show something that, in my opinion, gives another side to the veil,’ says the 32-year-old artist. ‘I’ve come from a modern Muslim upbringing in Cairo, where most of the women in my family wore a veil just covering their hair. The women I was surrounded by while growing up were really strong characters and role models in my life.’

In particular, Tantawy, who is based between London and Cairo, attributes those qualities to her grandmother and mother. ‘My mum is an artist herself and she has inspired and supported me in my own career. She has worked my whole life and she’s always been there to support me and my sisters and my father. I can’t deny what she represents and her veil doesn’t take away from any of that.’

Though Tantawy chooses not to wear a veil herself, she says it ‘represents something that can be feminine – a woman can express her style through the veil’. Swathed in brilliant colours and soft effects, her images aim to overturn the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with the veil in the west. ‘Many people think the veil is limited to Muslim women and that it’s oppressive, and doesn’t allow women to be feminine or independent or have a life. Yet Catholic nuns cover their hair,’ she explains. ‘Most of the pictures on show here are from India, where the women are predominantly Hindu – they wear veils as part of the tradition of showing modesty in the street. It’s nothing to do with religion – it’s more cultural.’

Tantawy uses unusual effects in her images: many are blurred to highlight motion and texture, and she also uses her camera to play on reflections and look through objects to achieve layering. One of her favourite images in the series (pictured top) is an example of this. ‘I was photographing in the market early in the morning. There was a beautiful red curtain with a flower design and I was taking pictures as people walked by. When that woman came by it was perfect – she almost became part of that whole curtain. It was really beautiful,’ she says.

So where does she get her inspiration? ‘Muscovite photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s work is extremely poetic, and I think the images go very deep into his psychology. The images are so beautiful and so unique. He can be in any situation, where there isn’t necessarily anything happening, but he’ll make an amazing picture. For me, that’s very powerful and inspiring.’

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘The Veil’ until February 18 at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Ave (04 380 8545).
Artist: Laura El-Tantawy.
Price of works: From Dhs3,675.

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