Fragility, survival and hope are the driving themes behind Al Noor – Fragile Vision, a thought-provoking exhibition produced by Rachel Gadsden in collaboration with artists from the Middle East as part of DaDaFest 2014 at the Bluecoat, Liverpool. Review by Jade French.
This intricate body of work explores society’s openness about impairment with an aim to promote a cultural shift in how disabled people are recognised in the Middle East. Are perceptions and experiences of disability so vastly different in the Middle East than in the UK? I visited the exhibition during DaDaFest to find out.
I confess that before visiting Al Noor, I knew very little about the Middle East, and even less about disability in the Middle East. The curation of the exhibition, in particular the inclusion of documentary photographs and video, provide much needed context to appreciate these artworks. For this project has a hugely rich framework, reflected in its vast network of multi-cultural partnerships which includes Arts Council England, British Council UK, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, DadaFest 2014, the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar University, Al Riwaq Gallery, Bahrain and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.
Listening to Gadsden at Al Noor’s private view, she explains the core of the project; disabled people are hidden away in the Middle East, with many people never leaving their homes, experiencing education or have any sort of opportunity to participate in society. Gadsden goes on to describe her first encounter with her Al Noor – Fragile Vision collaborators, a group of young Middle Eastern women, at her own exhibition last year. “They couldn’t believe that a woman could be an artist with her own exhibition” said Gadsden. They also couldn’t believe that I was a disabled woman, and were even more shocked to find out that I was married”. It then struck me that this exhibition is not just about disability, it’s also about women’s issues and women’s rights.
This is further revealed in the work. A beautiful portrait of a woman in a hijab, her face partly hidden from us by paint dripping down the canvas. This to me speaks of hidden female identity, and furthermore of hidden disability. The painting titled Fragile Vision is expressive in style: quick brush strokes, drips and smudges suggest a living painting, waiting to be finished.
Another stand out piece was a animation of hand-drawn figures moving, or maybe dancing? This is cleverly projected opposite photographs taken in Qatar of Gadsden, titled Shamal, her silhouetted outline moving majestically in the desert with a white cane. These images radiate empowerment.
Also displayed in the room alongside Gadsden’s work is art by her collaborators from across the wider project. This includes individuals artwork such as a tactile painting by Zahra Aldhamin, a blind woman rom Saudi Arabia. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the wonderful textures – a real treat after years of being told not to touch art.
I hope that the participation of the British Council in Al Noor – Fragile Vision is an indicator that change really is happening. I was so impressed to see the huge efforts to bring international members and collaborating artists to fly over and take part in the exhibition and the wider DaDaFest programme.
The work itself is uplifting, skilled and thoughtful, showing the huge potential the Middle East has to produce some fantastic artists, despite attitudes to disability and to gender.