Reading through the enigmatically titled Crooked Rib Art’s mission statement, you’ll come across an illuminating explanation for the group’s unusual name: “If you try to straighten it by force, it will break.” Referring specifically to the symbolic emblem of the ‘rib’, the statement could just as easily apply to the artists who make up Crooked Rib Art – a group of 10 inspired (and inspiring) women who seek to challenge preconceived ideas of what it means to be female, young and Muslim.

Currently exhibiting as part of Harrell Fletcher’s The Sound We Make Together exhibition of community art showing at the National Gallery of Victoria, Crooked Rib Art was established as 'Crooked Rib' in 2007 as part of the City of Melbourne’s Community Cultural Development Program in partnership with the Muslim Women’s Council Victoria.

Since its establishment, the group has been involved in the Melbourne International Arts Festival (2008) and this year - since becoming Crooked Rib Art - produced a community centre mural for the City of Yarra. Most recently, artworks from the collective have been displayed at the Desypher Gallery in Fitzroy, the girls’ unique take on cultural identity complementing the melting pot of Melbourne’s ethnic landscape.

Interestingly, this dedication to challenging inflexible stereotypes could just as easily apply to Harrell Fletcher’s artistic modus operandi. During his most recent visit to Australia, the public art pioneer – who has dedicated his career to lifting the velvet-rope between community and art – worked directly with Crooked Rib Art as part of The Sound We Make Together exhibition. Just as Crooked Rib Art lifts the veil on Muslim identity, so too Fletcher’s intimate portraits of community life put the people back into public art.

For Crooked Rib member Reeham Hakem, the chance for Crooked Rib Art to partake in a large-scale community art project through the Harrell Fletcher exhibition was an invaluable opportunity. “We found Harrell’s project and nature of work to always focus on members of society and their role in the arts, and we thought it was a perfect way to be part of that ‘larger picture’ as one element working with others to show that art can be for everyone,” she says.

As part of the project, Crooked Rib Art was required to choose an artwork from the NGV archives that they felt should be exhibited alongside an original piece of their own. Having raided the NGV’s artistic pantry, so to speak, they eventually chose ‘Yarla’ by the indigenous artist Lorna Napurrula Fencer. A joyous take on Aboriginal spirituality, the piece’s celebratory treatment of the natural world – captured energetically in bright hues and rhythmic curves – resonated especially with the Crooked Rib Art team.

“The depiction of sacred aspects of nature in her painting, such as food and landscape to emphasise the spiritual self in relation to its physical surroundings, was something we, as artists and individuals, could relate to,” explains Reeham.

The exhibition, and in particular Harrell Fletcher’s commitment to art as an accessible public language, enhanced Crooked Rib Art’s appreciation of pictures as social conversation starters. Rather than the unique territory of turtle-necked gallery patrons, public art gives visual form to the myriad voices within our collective community.

“There’s something about being able to publicly exhibit, or address, or point out an issue that you feel is important for others to see,” says Reeham. “What this project did was combine all these voices, regardless of any differences in opinion, under one roof. And gave an opportunity for several members of the public to curate the show to what they thought needed to be presented or said under the title of ‘art’.”

As their contribution, Crooked Rib Art selected a work entitled Rumman (translates to pomegranate). Cast in rich purples and golds, the fruit itself functions as a symbol for the complexity of a single individual and, by extension, a community. As the group explains, the pomegranate, with its bejeweled interior and modest outer shell metaphorically illustrates “that the beauty within all of us is found in the details of our character”. Pertinently, the exhibition’s aim to blur the distinction between ‘art’ and public life aligns with Crooked Rib Art’s ambition to challenge preconceived ideas of social identity.

“The exhibition breaks the barriers on what it means to be an artist, or in our case ‘Muslim’ artists, and what it ‘should’ mean; as well as what art should be and what it can be.”

‘Crooked Rib’ might seem like a strange name, but just like everything else the group does, it has a purpose and a point. Named after the Islamic prophetic tradition that refers to women as the ‘crooked end’ of the rib, protecting the heart, Crooked Rib Art is a deliberately ambiguous title, Reeham notes. Without an immediately comprehensible meaning, people are invited to ask to find out more – and it’s this act of questioning, of seeking to learn more about things you initially don’t understand, that forms the fundamental basis for everything the group does. Instead of simply taking a label and making a judgment, they’re challenged to learn and reassess what they thought they knew.

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