Please take a few seconds to read this poem:
You can’t turn me on with a cuddle,
a kiss or scent.
Only a thrust rocks out my strains
until the ring on my toe falls in my sleeve
and my blues fly away
You might expect it to have been written by a feminist poet in 2017, but this was in fact created in the 8th century by Iraqi Dahna bint Mas-hal. When Róisín O’ Loughlin came across a collection of Arabic poems written by women between the 7th and 12th centuries, she was blown away. “I was on a long bus journey and random googling led me to Wallada bint al Mustakfi’s poem from the 11th century [find it below]. It read like a pop lyric and I thought, if there is one, maybe there are more.”
An actress based in London without any ties to the art world, Róisín was mesmerised by the work of these radical women through the centuries, and knew she had to do something to get them out there. She was interested in exploring how rich female sexuality is and always has been, and how deep the misconceptions are in the West around the multitude of Muslim and Arab cultures.
“I don’t imagine that many Islamophobes will rush to come to the show, but what’s been interesting to me as I developed it is how many people who are well-intentioned, ‘cultured’ and even actively supportive of Muslim people are still so guided by stereotypes which I think the show dismantles, the most obvious being of the ’submissive, passive’ Muslim woman,” she says.
She selected 24 poems, wrote them in individually-crafted scrolls, and posted them to 48 women artists around the world. Each artist received their assigned poem with the sole instruction to interpret it visually. “I am actually an actress, I don’t know anything about art, so it was much more about giving all these different women a voice and platform for their expression,” she explains. “I didn’t say anything to them about what their poem would be like or give any information about how I felt or anything, because it was about discovering their pure responses.”
The results are as heterogeneous as they are moving, and are now going to be showcased, alongside the poems, in a new London show. Radical Love started last year as a love-filled response to the surges in Islamophobia in Europe following the Paris attacks and during the refugee crisis.
“What’s so cool to me is that we tend to focus on the upper classes, with only their voices recorded for posterity, but in this instance we have women who were slaves, concubines, ‘wits’, court singers all voicing their thoughts. That meant a lot to me. Whenever I’m reading about Queen Elizabeth or whatever I’m always wondering what her washerwoman was up to. One example is Juml, a concubine from the 9th century whose poem is a hilarious mockery of her much older lover’s impotence. To paraphrase ‘oh man, if only I’d been a better Muslim, Allah wouldn’t have sent me this waste of space who can’t get it up’.”
While she was wary of polluting this celebratory show with the hate that corrodes politics right now, Róisín couldn’t ignore the coincidence of the launch with Trump’s travel ban. She feels like the time is now to celebrate these works of sensuality and sexuality: “Ranging from slaves to wits and princesses, [these poets] all revel in a female vitality and sexuality that is the nightmare of anyone with tiny hands.”
Any profits will be destined The Global Fund for Women helping Syrian refugees. If you can’t make it, you can still donate online.
We spoke to some of the artists about their work and their thoughts on resistance this Valentine’s Day.
Nadine Faraj, Canada
You received the poem by Dahna bint Mas-hal [above]. What did it make you feel like?
It’s so wonderful! I made myself memorise it while I was working. This is a woman who is not satisfied. She’s like: I’m hungry sexually, you’re not doing it for me, you need to satisfy me or it’s over. I’m blown away. One detail which could be helpful for us to understand her mindset is that I think this woman was a princess. I don’t think it really matters, though.
When I think of Iraq, I think of my aunts that grew up in Baghdad and the way they’re so conservative. We think generations before us were so conservative, and here our preconceptions are being shattered. I should have known better because I read Rumi poetry. But that’s a man! And they’ve always been able to do whatever they want.
There are many art exhibitions held to raise money and awareness for a cause. But in this case Róisín is going beyond that. By introducing us to stunning ancient Arab poetry, and contemporary art, she is facilitating a more rounded view of Arab women. Knowledge of their history and personal stories dissolves stereotypes.
I love the idea of rewriting history, fleshing it out, remembering the women’s stories alongside those of men.
How did you approach your artwork for this?
The first step was to memorise the poem. I’ll tell you what I ended up with: a very hungry-looking woman. She’s totally in charge of herself. And she’s staring at the viewer head-on. She’s waiting for something, anticipating something.
What’s important for me is to have different psychological layers appear in the artwork. Things happened like: the lips are smeared. And it makes her look really messy, like maybe she’s been tussling in the bedroom all night. And she might also look a little hurt. You could interpret the blue eyes as black eyes. I liked that the painting is a little messy and complicated.
I am proud to portray women’s sexual agency, there is nothing shameful in enjoying this healthy pleasure. Yet, I know that this experience is often fraught with pain too. I allow that to tinge the mood because it (misogyny/sexual abuse) is a reality we are just learning to confront and deal with.
What’s your artistic intention?
I have a pretty high aim with art, and it’s going to take a few paintings to reach that. It’s about a unification of humanity. There’s a baseline we all share as humans. A togetherness. That is very important for me. It’s how we look at, listen to, care for each other. Sharing stories is a way to build connections, bridges across cultures. And even between friends, we constantly tell each other stories of our experience.
I do read Rumi and other mystic poets, and I love the mystics’ worldview. It’s radically joyous and liberated. I’d like to make these paintings that help us connect to this whole other way to experience reality, that can shake us up in a way that makes us more relaxed. Like a strong massage. It’s very stimulating and then you can be quiet for a second.
I’ve been using lots of references to sexuality. It’s one domain that’s not corporatised yet, one where we experience things so intensely, and where we have the whole range of emotions we can experience, right there. It says a lot about who we are. I just love skin!
Why do you think it’s important to celebrate female lust now?
We all need to find a source of energy. I don’t mean inspiration, I mean energy. Just following the news can be very draining. For some people it’s in religion and prayer, for some it can be meditation, being with their children, community work… for artists, we get energy from working.
And also (given the current political climate) being together and just asserting what’s right and that justice and care for others is the right thing. We need to scream that. That’s why we’re making art, that’s why were getting together to combat fascism.
My mom is worried when I go to protests. I say it’s not the 30s; it’s another time and we’ve learned (or a lot of us have learned) the lessons of history and we’re going to go out and do everything we can. You can’t always be screaming in the streets, you have to have beauty and joy to fill your well. Because what’s the point? We’re not screaming in the streets to have the freedom to scream in the streets, but to have the freedom to love.
Hana Perlas, Egypt
Which poem did you get assigned? And how did it make you feel?
Umm khalid al-Numayriyya sorrowfully wrote of the death of her son:
The morning south wind blew from my son’s land
His musk, ambergris and lavender-scented presence
I miss him and the thought of him tears my eyes
Like a prisoner recalling home under the shackles’ painful grip,
Or the cries of a soul away from its love.
The poem was very touching and inspiring to me because I can relate to it so much, the Middle East in the last decade has been witnessing a lot of tension and women losing their loved ones. The poem is full of emotions that truly describe how I feel about what has been happening in my country.
How did you approach your artwork for this?
Arabic literature is very poetic and full of beautiful metaphors. I tried to depict the emotional metaphors in the poem which are full of pain and longing through two photographs: the sorrow of a lonely mother doing her duties – baking bread for her family while staring at the fire and lost in thought -, and a dream-like photograph of a young boy playing with pigeons which represents peace and love. I merged the two photographs together to evoke the idea of her longing to see her son and feel his presence. The wind is bringing him to her mind. Two worlds flow and become one. Separated yet connected.
You’re a street photographer in Egypt, right? What are you aiming to capture?
Street photography is, to me, poetry in its most honest form; and my work is inspired by all human interactions, behavior and emotions. Exploring the human mind and soul. That is why I’m most inspired to take photographs that capture the genuine humanity of everyday life and provoke compassion and an understanding of our differences. I once read a quote that really speaks to my soul: “I am who I am because of who we all are.” I strongly believe that we are all part of each other, and regardless of our differences, humanity will always remain the common ground that connects us all.
What other artists, ideas or objects inspire you in your work?
I never know how to answer this question what inspires me as an artist because everything inspires me to create. Poetry. Music. Egypt. My memories, the good and bad. Everything. Every photograph I create is a part of me, everything I have felt, and everything I have been through.
But most of all, I have to say: Women. Egyptian women inspire me in so many ways and they are huge part of my work. Their beauty, their strength, their vulnerability, everything about them. They way the Egyptian woman carries herself and her family despite the consequences. For instance, when I go to a local market and find a woman carrying her kid in one hand and holding the grocery bags with the other hand while carrying a pile of bread on her head, this for me is the most honest definition of strength, love, and vulnerability all together.
However, they are often neglected in society or mis-portrayed as the weak in need of protection.
Tell us a bit more about your story. You work alone, roaming the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian locations, which you’ve said isn’t always easy as a woman. Can you talk a little more about that, and about how you don’t let that define or affect you?
Street photography is my first love, I’ve always loved capturing candid moments in life that normally just pass by. It taught me to see Egypt with my heart, not just with my eyes. It helped me rediscover the beauty of my country, and the genuineness of its people, which I found to be truly spectacular.
As a woman, roaming the streets alone, and with a camera, is nowhere near easy. But when you are following your passion, you will be led by a force. You won’t question, you will be magnetised by it. And this is what happened with me every time I thought of giving up or when I faced challenges on the streets. I didn’t want my fear to stop me from pursuing my passion and doing what really keeps me alive. That indescribable feeling of joy and satisfaction I get when I capture a photograph that has the power to convey something about human existence, this alone makes it all worthwhile.
Why do you think it’s important to celebrate female lust right now?
As the geopolitics of the world is constantly evolving in a “man’s world” for power and money; celebrating female lust is an act of revolt in itself on the bitter unkind world we are living in.
Which poem did you get assigned? And what did it make you feel?
The poem assigned was written by Wallada bint al Mustakfi (11th C, Cordoba):
I am made for higher goals and by Allah,
I am going my way with pride.
I allow my lover to touch my cheek
And bestow my kiss to him who craves it.
When I read it for the first time, I was surprised that it felt so current. It could have been written by a 21st-century woman, a powerful woman who controls her body and her life.
Why did you decide to portray a skater?
When I read the poem for the first time, an image of Muslim girl skating high in the sky came immediately to mind. In most of my works I turn photographs into drawings to create new imaginary about women from a feminist perspective. This drawing was inspired by an image by Massoud Hossaini depicting Afghan girls skating in Kabul in 2013. There is a defiance in showing Afghan girls feeling free and liberated. I created the sky as a background and the “wing shoes” to emphasise the idea of freedom.
Tell us more about your work!
The main focus of my work is the woman: Her story, the struggles for emancipation and equality, and the cultural construction of femininity. I define myself as a feminist visual artist. My work is an artistic product in itself and it’s also an instrument whose aim is to contribute to political transformations. For example, my series Indignadas (Outraged women), which is part of my project Women Working for Women, consists of drawings based on press photographs of women involved in protest movements. It creates a visual record showing the woman immersed in political action and also the female body as support for the political message. By transforming photographs into drawings, I immortalise these actions to show that social changes throughout history were made by women and men together.
How do you feel about being part of this group show, with artists making bold, ace art about female sexuality?
I think this global dialogue between female creators from the past and the present is a beautiful idea. And I love that the exhibition is breaking stereotypes about Muslim or Arab women, showing them (in the past and the present) as empowered women.
Radical Love: Female Lust will be at the Crypt Gallery, St Pancras, London between 14 February and 5 March.