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Feature: Coveting The Hijab Through The Photographic Lens


L-R: London Veil and New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

L-R: London Veil and New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

In her Image: London Veil | Paris Veil | New York Veil
By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Toronto, Canada

 

Beauty is truth,” says Sara Shamsavari.

 

To Shamsavari, the elevation of beauty and truth extends far beyond the reach of fashion ideals.  True beauty comes from challenging stereotypes, encouraging “ideals of non-judgement, equality, unity in diversity, and collective responsibility.”

 

The British-Iranian artist is the woman behind the lens of London Veil, Paris Veil, and New York Veil series, insightful and ground-breaking exhibits intent on exploring the truth behind the hijab, the Islamic veil worn by millions of Muslim women world-wide.

 

 

Photographer Sara Shamsavari, photography by Sara Russell

Photographer Sara Shamsavari, photography by Sara Russell

 

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

Before her lens, Sara Shamsavari’s muse – the everyday Muslimah – dons the veil in flashes of gleaming turquoise and hot purple leopard, feet slipped into open-toe studded heels or orange suede boots sinking into fresh city snow, eyebrows arched impossibly high, lips sometimes pursed in an invisible kiss, the spark of gleaming jewels adorning her forehead.  Eyes levelled, meeting our gaze.

 

Defiant. Bold. And deeply badass.

 

“I’ve always felt that Muslim women weren’t given a fair judgement by the media and a large part of society,” Amirah Dayana Chairil, one of the women featured in London Veil, tells Ramp1885.  “When I came across Sara’s project I fell in love immediately because I saw how important her project was to many Muslim women in painting a different and more vibrant picture of them. It’s short and sweet because through her pictures you can see these strong and beautiful women.”

 

Amirah Dayana Chairil / London Veil

Amirah Dayana Chairil / London Veil

 

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

For a young ‘Hijabista,’ the hijab is often a deeply personal and spiritual journey, but also a journey that reflects a passion for self-expression through beauty, style, and fashion.  But in western countries where the veil is viewed as a suspect symbol of radicalisation, oppressive of women’s equality, and even an inflammatory affront to democratic values, donning the hijab is also a deeply political act of unabashed resistance.

 

“The veil is just a piece of scarf,” Fatumina Said, also portrayed in London Veil.  “But it’s the meaning that we give to it and what it means to us that makes it special.  By being part of this project I represent one of the many women who the media describes as oppressed, when in fact it was my own choice to embrace it and to really use it as a tool to express my individuality, of which Islam plays a big role.”

 

Fatumina Said/London Veil

Fatumina Said/London Veil

 

“I see this project as a great tool to show support for feminism because it challenges the definition of oppressed women,” says Amirah. “A woman in a hijab is not oppressed, in fact to her it is actually empowering. It shows that Muslim women are strong women who have a personality, style and are unique individually.

 

As Sara Shamsavari told Mass Appeal, “the best art should somehow challenge its environment.”  And to young women like Amirah and Fatumina, change must first come by being accurately portrayed in the eyes of their societies.  It takes an intermediary like Sara Shamsavari, a woman who walks in two worlds and understands exclusion first-hand.

 

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

“Growing up as any ‘other’ nationality in the 80s and 90s was tough and the experience of feeling excluded definitely inspired an exploration of identity for me,” Shamsavari tells Lets Be Brief.  “Growing up in London however, meant that rather than being surrounded by Iranians like my cousins in Iran or L.A, I came up among different cultures, most of us sharing similar challenges and struggles. This taught me about our essential oneness influencing my outlook and my work.”

 

As Shamsavari tells Ramp1885, London Veil | Paris Veil |New York Veil is the first time Hijabistas have seen themselves represented in the way they see themselves.

 

“I know that [Sara’s project] can be a source of change,” Shayma Bentahar, captured in Paris Veil, tells Ramp1885.  “It has potential to touch people, to open their minds to different possibilities, different opinions and multiple solutions and that aim means a lot to me. It is also a very beautiful artistic result and I love beautiful things.”

 

Shayma Bentahar /Paris Veil

Shayma Bentahar /Paris Veil

 

In a discussion with Ramp1885, Sara Shamsavari discusses the stories behind her Veil series, what change she hopes to see it provoke, and why representation of Hijabistas in the West matters.

 


Tell me about the first time you picked up a camera and knew that this was something you love.

I work with and enjoy different mediums such as music, painting and writing. However I was always deeply impressed by the power that photography has to connect us with one another in an instant. It is also a very inclusive and yet powerfully engaging art form that has the ability to engage and empower others.

 

What led you to think about photographing the veil?

All of my work looks at social and cultural concerns and I saw a huge disparity between the image I would see projected of these women on mass media and the women I knew and saw every day. I believe that each of us should have the choice in how we express ourselves.  Particularly at such a time where the image of women who veil is so maligned and misrepresented in the west it is of even greater importance that a project like this is created and given prominence.

 

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

London Veil by photographer L-R: London Veil and New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

You told Mass Appeal, “I think the best art should somehow challenge its environment.”  How do you think your work challenges the environment in New York, Paris and London?

I think the role of the artist is really to reflect on one’s environment, in other words, have conscience and understanding towards other human beings, have empathy and when something is unjust challenge that. And even better do it in a way that is new, beautiful and captivating. I can’t comment on comment on how well my work achieves this but beautifully challenging narrow, stereotyped and simplistic perspectives is certainly a goal.

 

In what ways do you think your lens captures the “human strength and fragility” of the veil?

I see every person I photograph as my refection in some way. I am looking for the beauty, the strength, the fragility that exists in each one of us, the thing that connects us beyond what is on the surface (age, complexion, gender, religious orientation, sexuality etc-all the boxes basically). When we look in to the face and the eyes of another, regardless of how different that person is from us on the surface, I believe we can always see something of ourselves. Photography has that power – it can bring us together.

 

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

What has been the reaction from people?  Can you tell us about a moment where you think you were able to bring nuance to the way someone sees the veil?

From participants and from women I have met who veil many people have said that this is the first time they have seen themselves represented in the way they see themselves, which was touching. The exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall has had an incredible response from non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

 

Tell us about the most insightful moment/conversation you had with one of the Hijabistas you photographed. 

Many of the ladies I know who have participated in the project are eloquent, the things that they have told me personally and in this video are not new for me, they are common sense, we are all human beings with goals dreams and aspirations. I don’t understand why a person should be categorised just because they choose to express their faith visibly. It deeply saddens me that certain people within our society are so badly represented, misrepresented or underrepresented. We all deserve a voice.

 

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

Paris Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

I think with this or with any group of people it is important to get to know the person. I do feel that this exhibition, including the video installation does encourage this  as it invites the viewers to get to know these young women instead of just judging or dismissing as so many people do.

 

What would you say to pundits who think veiled women are oppressed?

Go tell that to some of my girls in New York (!) But seriously, I would say get to know the person who you think is oppressed, you may be surprised. It truly is a shame that we live in a society that is so fearful of the other, that would rather quickly judge than take the time and seek to understand. I don’t believe that everything is black and white and that all people should be judged in the same way just because of the faith or tribe they belong to or identify with.

 

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

New York Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

London Veil by photographer Sara Shamsavari

 

 

What’s next for you?

I will be in Toronto between the 3rd and 7th of April before heading to Chicago to see my work open in the Museum of Contemporary Photography for Shantrelle P Lewis’ Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity.

 

Current and forthcoming exhibitions:

Britain Retold- a Portrait of London is currently on view at Tricycle London, from Feb 19th- March 29th 2015

The London Paris & New York Veil Series are on view at The Royal Festival Hall from March 1st-29th 2015 .

The Dandy Lion project is on View at MoCP Chicago from April 9th until July 2nd 2015

Re: Significations In Association With Black Portraitures is on view in Florence from the 28th May 2015

 

All model photography courtesy of Sara Shamsavari 

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

 

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