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Arts festival focuses on women in the Mideast
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Arts festival focuses on women in the Mideast

Rutgers and Princeton showcase works from Arabs, Israelis, Iranians

In an area too often known for its endless conflicts, Middle Eastern female artists and performers have found a means to express their feelings about their culture, violence, and gender roles.

More than 100 works by these women will be on display at venues in Princeton and New Brunswick through Jan. 13 as part of a half-year-long program sponsored jointly by Rutgers and Princeton universities.

“The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society” will include lectures, film screenings, and special events held in conjunction with the exhibits.

At its inaugural symposium, held Sept. 9 at Rutgers and attended by a number of the 24 participating artists, hundreds of visitors walked through the Mason Gross Galleries in downtown New Brunswick viewing videos and DVD presentations. A symposium, featuring several of the artists, followed at Scott Lecture Hall on the Rutgers campus.

Many of the 22 works at Mason Gross showed women straining to break out of the religious, societal, and sexual restraints of their cultures. Others highlighted the harsh realities of the region — brutal dictatorships and regional and ethnic conflicts.

“The Fertile Crescent” is being curated and organized by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, codirectors of the Rutgers Institute for Women and the Arts, who have spent several years bringing the major undertaking to fruition.

Brodsky told the gathering the exhibit was about “unavailable intersections” of nationality, gender, religion, history, and “the idea [that] we live in a state of flux.”

Rutgers’ new president, Robert Barchi, said the exhibit “challenges us to think of a part of the world that since 9/11 has suffered from prejudice.”

The works of the women from North Africa, Iran, Arab countries, and Israel reflect “uncertainty and precariousness,” said panelist Kelly Baum, the Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Museum.

Baum said she hoped the “cross reciprocity” would bridge the “cultural gap.”

The artists themselves demonstrated the complexities of the region and the world opened to them through modern technology. They included Fatima Al Qadiri, a Kuwaiti artist residing in New York, whose work depicted four transvestite men in women’s clothes — one in full burka — chatting over tea; Syrian artist Diana El Jeiroudi, whose film Dolls focuses on a popular Barbie-like doll with a Muslim head covering; and Ariane Littman, a Swiss-born Israeli whose video “Sea of Death” features a woman floating in the Dead Sea, wrapped in bandages.

Israeli artist Ayana Friedman spoke of her “Red Freedom” video, in which a woman wears an impractically flowing red dress signifying the social constraints complicating women’s lives.

“She is gathering the Hebrew letters spelling the word for human,” Friedman explained. “It shows women not only create life. This also creates a spiritual meaning. See, she raises herself like a Phoenix.”

Panelist Zeina Barakeh provided a poignant backdrop to the complexities of the region.

Her father fled his native Jaffa in 1948 after the creation of Israel for Beirut, where the family was swept up in the brutal civil war between Christians and Muslims that raged from 1975 to 1990.

Barakeh, now living in San Francisco, showed a series of videos called “Scenarios of Return,” including one in which her image is seen among the trees in Jaffa’s traditional orange groves to signify her return to “a place where I can never go.”

Beyond the main five sites at the two universities, the exhibit will also have related programming through the arts councils of Princeton and West Windsor; East Brunswick, New Brunswick, and Princeton public libraries; the College of New Jersey in Ewing; Rutgers in Newark and Camden; and the New York City Public Library.

For a full listing of exhibitions and events, go to fertile-crescent.org.

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