A woman stares down the lens behind oversized black sunnies: an Audrey Hepburn like figure with bright pink lipstick, a cigarette in one hand and an accessory dog in the other. The rest of her, from head to toe, is cloaked in a black chador.
In another image Marilyn Monroe-style curls poke out from the woman’s hijab as she points a gun to her head. In another, her face, her identity, is eclipsed entirely by a plaited blonde ponytail.
These tongue-in-cheek Warholian images from Melbourne-based photographer and artist Hoda Afshar will be displayed at ACE Open next month as part of Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change. The exhibition, which comes under the Adelaide Festival banner, is the first major show for Eleven, a national collective of Australian Muslim artists, curators and writers.
Inspired by Indigenous art group proppaNOW and initiated by Sydney-based artist Khaled Sabsabi, the collective pushes back against mainstream representation of Muslim Australians and establishes a platform for agency and autonomy. “It’s a response to the way Islamic communities are represented in the West and the misrepresentation of Islamic identities,” Afshar tells Broadsheet.
Her series Under Western Eyes directly references these themes; the heightened blend of studio photography and pop art challenges the standard image of Islamic women that’s seen in Western art galleries. “All the artists of Iran and the Middle East who are successful in the Western art market are the ones making work about veiling and showing Iranian or Islamic women as suppressed and homogenous,” says Afshar. “We see them as empty shells and we fill those empty shells with whatever image we like.”
Since moving to Australia from Tehran in 2007, the award-winning photographer is regularly asked to “talk about the plight of Islamic women”, as if there was one shared experience. “It was always assumed they know what my story and narrative is,” says Afshar.
“I’m Iranian but not all Iranian women are veiled and not all veiled women are suppressed. It was a shock to me, the way it’s always pre-assumed and pre-judged. I’m trying to mirror back the image that exists of me.”
Unfortunately, it’s not an experience left in the past, either. “I get it all the time where people say, ‘Oh you’re from Iran, how come you’re educated? How come you look like this?’
“I think it’s getting worse; the situation of Islamic people is constantly changing through the image the media is representing. At the moment, with people like Trump and Pauline Hanson in power and having access to media, I think it’s getting worse and worse everyday.”
When representation of Muslims in western media is either woeful political discourse or a complete lack of visibility, a collective like Eleven is long overdue.
The exhibition, which opens on Saturday March 3, is curated by collective members Nur Shkembi and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. It examines the moments – migration, social and political upheaval, and personal realisations – that have redefined how the artists see themselves and the world around them.
Four-time Archibald Prize nominee Abdul Abdullah will exhibit new works – a series set against the backdrop of customised Malaysian Islamic wedding venues – fresh from their unveiling at the 2017 Paris Art Fair. Walkley Award-winning artist Safdar Ahmed will combine VR technology with ambient sound and frenetic comic-style drawings to examine issues of race, Islamophobia and the anti-immigration discourse in Australia. Khaled Sabsabi will present the Australian premiere of his installation At the Speed of Light, which features an 11-channel sculptural video work.
All 10 exhibiting artists tackle identity and representation in their work, though the delivery varies significantly. “The work of Abdul-Rahman is very subtle and poetic … I use different aesthetics and languages,” says Afshar. “Sometimes it’s really personal and sometimes it’s very political and social.
“That’s the beauty of art-making, we get to talk about things in a different way. The way art can communicate these issues and individuals’ struggles … it can draw them in instead of pushing them away.”
Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change runs from March 3 to April 21 at ACE Open. A panel discussion featuring exhibiting artists Safdar Ahmed, Nur Shkembi, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Eugenia Flynn and Hoda Afshar is on Sunday March 4 at 1.30pm.