Conceptual photography series by Rasha Al Shaar
“Orientalism” is a way of looking at the differences between Arabs and their culture and the Western countries such as Europe and the United States of America. During the European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World, when “Orientalism” came about, it was artistically depicted with imagery that emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts reality of the Arab word in order to portray it as a world that is so different or unusual. This act or perspective is described as “othering”. “Othering” is when characteristics are fixed to a certain group of people that are different. I related this movement in history to modern day human behavior and judgment in the Arab world internally. My final artwork represents this concept of “othering” from a different perspective. Rather than “othering” a society or culture outside of your own in order to compare the two, I portrayed the “others” within my Kuwaiti community that has been labeled as “the other” by the West. With my conceptual photographic series, “The Other’s Other”, I show the different “others” within the Kuwaiti society specifically in regard to marriage or romantic relations.
Although I believe that “Othering” and “Orientalism” lead to several negative misconceptions and stereotypes that were far from the realities of the Arab world, I believe that “othering” is a great example of natural human behavior. As an Arab, learning about Orientalism in history was upsetting, as it explains a lot of current misconceptions, it also puts several different acts of “othering” into perspective, both in religious or secular settings. Technically, “othering” is something we do everyday. As human beings, it is in our nature to judge what we see that is different than what we perceive as acceptable or normal. What usually happens when we see or perceive something of this sort is we tent to share, and when we tend to share we tend to exaggerate in order to tell an interesting or persuasive story. A discipline that they do this often in is advertising. Similarly, in the history of “Orientalism”, French entrepreneurs advertised the region through the production of postcards. Although they were meant to depict women in their every day lives, the scenes were set up in a studio. This form of advertising or propaganda that circulated France were published in Malek Alloula’s book, The Colonial Harem. As a Creative Advertising student with a love for psychology and human behavior, this was very interesting to me.
As a student in the Visual Communications department, the effect that visuals have and the messages that they communicate attracted me to the visual representation of the Arab world in “Orientalism”. What pushed this interest further was my interest in human behavior, which is evident in most of my social awareness campaigns that aim to make a positive change in the community regarding both social and psychological issues. Lastly, the fact that I am an amateur conceptual photographer, I was motivated to show a different perspective to “othering” using the same exaggeration that is evident in my personal artistic style.
“The Other’s Other” is a piece that looks at one community and shows that even in an Arab community, which is labeled the “other” among many other countries in the region, in one community itself there are many “others”. The same way the region was looked at and judged in a specific way for its differences, I decided to look at those sub groups of different or judged people in Kuwait. So I asked myself, what topic or situation is there the most controversy in Kuwait that leads to judgment and forming subgroups that go against the norm from the older generation, in this case “the others”. This led me to the concept of relationships/ marriage. As a Lebanese Kuwaiti born in Thailand with some Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, and Palestinian heritage, I never felt like I belonged to one country, nationality, or mentality. Growing up in Kuwait I witnessed how the traditional mentality lead to expectations and criteria that society needs to follow in order to be accepted by “the rest” (or those who have not been “othered”). I thought that it would be interesting to portray the most common different or unacceptable decisions that go against the norm regarding marriage or relationships that separates our community. This piece shows the reasons people are excluded and indirectly labeled as the “other” when it comes to marriage, and the different ways “the rest” of the Kuwaiti community judge them.
Considering the visual style of “Orientalism” as well as my personal style in the arts, “The Other’s Other” photography series plays with exaggeration in its social satire or commentary on the Kuwaiti society to communicate a strong message about “othering”. The photographs were taken with a Canon D550 outdoors with natural light in a secluded and isolated area. Another consistent theme of my creative work other than exaggeration that I felt fit this project well is the use of mixed media, or specifically the use of text and image. After shooting, I added the layer of text into the images using Adobe Illustrator. Each sentence is written in the modern Arabic English keyboard in the Kuwaiti dialect and written from the voice of “the rest” of the Kuwaiti society who are judging these common unacceptable or different behaviors.
An artist who had an influence on this photographic series is Shirin Neshat. Shirin is an Iranian artist who works with photography, film, and video. The subject of her work reflect on the contrast between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, and antiquity and modernity. One of her specific photographic series photographed by Cynthia Preston that highly interested me is "Women of Allah". It examines the complexities of women’s identities in the Middle East as it is continuously changing. One of the obvious similarities between our works is the representation of Muslims in the modern world through photography. Another one is the use of text and image. I found the way Shirin Neshat merged text into the image very interesting. She overlapped the text on the women’s skin as if it were engraved or tattooed on.
“The Other’s Other” communicates that “othering” or judgment within a community only separates us. In an Islamic country or society one should not only put efforts in stressing globally that this is a religion that represents peace in order to deconstruct the stereotype of terrorism and violence; but more importantly it represents peace internally within the community. Peace is about non-violence as much as it is about the unity and brotherhood.
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