Redressing the female nude

BEIRUT: A discordant electric guitar riff fills a curtained-off section of the gallery while, on screen, a nude woman – her body tightly bound in cling wrap – hacks at her long black hair with scissors.

Eeriness exacerbated by the scene’s stop-motion-animation jerkiness, the camera pans down to reveal the pile of shorn hair covering the woman’s bare feet. Next, her face, too, is covered with disfiguring plastic, through which the bald crown of her head can be glimpsed. She begins applying makeup, smearing black mascara atop the plastic that covers her eyes, daubing bright red lipstick above and around her lips to create a grotesque caricature of femininity.

Finally, the woman produces a virginal white wedding veil, adorned with a rose. She places it upon her bald head, adjusts it carefully and, humming a traditional Arab tune over the wailing guitar, walks off frame.

Entitled “Takrees” (Consecration), the video is one of more than 40 works by Lebanese artist Fatima Mortada currently on show at Mark Hachem Gallery. Mortada – who studied art at Lebanese University before completing a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Southampton in the U.K. – is not afraid to tackle controversial themes.

Mortada’s first solo show, “Labyrinth” is provocative enough that a section of racier work has been curtained off for those over 18. Like “Takrees,” this work is at once erotic and unsettling, calling into question perceptions of the female body and sexuality.

“There is an intense presence of conflict in the Middle East and a drastic absence of dealing with the body in artworks,” the artist’s brief text reads. “It is noted that addressing the body in its sexual presence in life’s everydayness is still a taboo in the Arab world; although the everyday struggle with this particular theme is profoundly relevant to the debates arising around the questions of identity and sexuality in the region.”

Many of the erotic works feature women pleasuring themselves. Although captured in positions pornographers usually employ to hypersexualize the female body, these women are no male fantasy. One is nude except for a black face veil. Others are missing limbs or have been defaced with red scrawls.

There is a macabre quality to these mixed-media works, which are full of unraveling strands of wool and hairlike tangles of thread, which demands that the viewer go beyond the erotic and consider questions of staging, voyeurism, fantasy and objectification.

Mortada works in a range of media. Aside from the lone video work, each painting and sculpture is characterized by the artist’s use of textiles – from neat panels created with the help of a knitting machine, on show in the middle of the gallery, to clumps of thread glued to canvas.

References to Islamic concepts and figures in the titles elevate the work from the provocative to the potentially controversial. A small doll, a nude woman with tangled red hair and crimson lips, is seated on a wooden chair with her legs crossed. She is clad in unraveling fishnet stockings, suspenders and garter belt, and a black basque. Her right arm is missing, seemingly amputated just below the shoulder. The title of the piece is “Aisha.”

Much of the work on show is less explicit, but all is concerned with the role of women and their perceived power. In “Europa,” a nude women with no lower arms seems to abandon herself to pleasure on the back of an enormous bison. In “She Crow,” inspired by the Arabic word for the bird, which shares a root with the word “stranger,” a man is confronted with a bizarre creature with the body of a woman and the head of a bird.

“Lost Powers” captures a one-armed woman dressed in what looks like a burlap sack. Two black circles of wool circle the areas where her breasts are not. “Fitna” (“chaos,” often associated with feminine sexual energy) is the title of another work, in which a nude perches on the edge of a double bed.

“The Night Fatima Was Busted” is another of Mortada’s eerie dolls, this one depicting a woman whose long legs, clad in gold-heeled boots, extend all the way up to her head. The woman’s figure is bereft of torso but burdened with a surfeit of arms, three of which – all ending in hands adorned with red-hued talons – appear to struggle with one another.

Mortada’s work is funny, thought-provoking and refreshingly different. As she acknowledges, it challenges several taboos and seems likely to offend and disgust some viewers as thoroughly as it delights others. It seems unlikely the artist cares.

“Sometimes I forget that I am an artist, thinking that I am a political activist of some kind,” she notes in her artist’s statement.

“After all, isn’t art supposed to change the world?”

Fatima Mortada’s “Labyrinth” is up at Mark Hachem gallery until Feb. 20. For more information, please call 01-999-313.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2014, on page 16.




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