Mar 26, 2023
Mar 26, 2023
by Mehru Jaffer
It is not the first time that the female form has sparked off a public debate between politicians and artists. At the centre of controversy this time in Vienna is 'Turkish Delight', a bronze, unflattering, life-size form of a woman that was installed last November in a public park of the city, clad in nothing but a headscarf.
The provocative art of Olaf Metzel, a German artist, failed to delight many members of the Turkish community living in the city, who in one voice demanded that the offensive sculpture be removed.
Sirvin Ekici, a member of Vienna's parliament, said that as a woman she felt disturbed by the sculpture. "We have been tense ever since September 11. Such artwork is inappropriate in the current situation," added the Austrian politician of Turkish origin.
While the sculpture was scheduled to be on display till the end of April this year, it was damaged by unknown miscreants and removed just before the dawn of the New Year. Now, it features as the central theme for all debates held on Europe and Islam.
At one discussion, Gerald Matt, director of Vienna's Kunsthalle, the venue where the sculpture was displayed, appealed to people to respect different aesthetic and religious opinions. Matt said he welcomes debates but condemns violence. He does not see the removal of the sculpture as a victory for those who are critical of the artwork. "The debate does not end here but has only just begun," he said.
Gudrun Harrer, managing foreign editor of 'Der Standard', the Austrian liberal daily and an expert on political and cultural issues of the Middle East regretted that the sculpture was removed. Harrer, who has a Masters degree in Arabic and Islamic studies from Vienna University, believes that in a democracy every point of view is important. The senior journalist said that she viewed Metzel's art as a critique of Orientalism, or the way the Occident has been manipulating knowledge of and for the Orient for a couple of centuries.
It is, therefore, ironic that many Muslims and Turks, too, often look at themselves and their culture from the information they have received from Western scholars.
Ever since the 19th century Western scholars have translated the writings of the Orient into different European languages based on the assumption that a truly effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples.
Professor Edward Said of Columbia University who died in 2003 is the best-known critic of Orientalism and his work forms an important background for post-colonial studies. The motive of colonialists was to use knowledge as power. By knowing the Orient, the West thought it could own it.
The myth of the Orient articulates people and cultures of the East as exotic and decadently corrupt, freely using the female form as a symbol of sensuality to validate its own fantasies and fetishes.
The inaccessibility of Muslim women remains a fascination with Western men. Representations of women from this period are most prominently featured in scenes from the harem, or rather the Western conception of the harem. The idea in all Orientalist images of women was the male longing to capture, covet, objectify, and to conquer Muslim women as a reflection of control over the terrain of the Orient.
All the work inspired by the Orient of Jean-Leon Gerome, the French painter who died in 1904, is a glaring example of the Western imagination desperately trying to intrude upon the forbidden, private, female space inside a Turkish bath, for example.
Both colonialism and photography descended upon the world simultaneously. Europeans took photographs of Oriental women against a contrived background in the mid-1800s and sold them as postcards. These were sent to Europe to give the family at home a glimpse into the Orient and to emboss stereotype images in the mind of ordinary Europeans, forever.
The stereotyping continues, particularly when it comes to the covering of the head by Muslim women. Today, Europe is obsessed with the veil, which is a complex tradition specific to time and place. However, many Europeans view veiling as an antiquated and oppressive tradition forced upon Muslim women even as veiled women become more visible in public places here.
Carla Amina Baghajati, spokesperson for Austria's Islamic community, was offended by Metzel's sculpture but is strictly against vandalism and violence. "There are other ways of expressing protest and we Muslims have to discuss what is the best way," said Baghajati.
Baghajati favors public discussions over limits of the freedom of speech, militant secularism and about the place of piety in both the public and private sphere. As a senior member of the country's Islamic community she is involved in a process to teach young Muslims born here the art of restraint in the face of provocation.
Going back to the origins of the idea of freedom of speech, Baghajati said it was born of the will of the voiceless majority that insisted on publicly protesting against oppression exercised upon them by a minority ruling elite.
"It is unfair that today the majority in Europe uses freedom of expression to often mock Muslims, who are a minority here," points out Baghajati, a Muslim of German origin who covers her head but wants Muslim women to have the freedom to wear the veil if they want to.
It is preconceived notions about the veil that is the cause of much misunderstanding between Europe's largely secular population and its migrant Muslim population.
According to Baghajati it is also the right of Muslims to feel hurt when people around them behave in an irresponsible way; and to express their feelings but in a non-threatening way.
According to Harrer, Metzel's sculpture is a comment on the stereotypical image of Turkish women in the mind of the West.
The reality, as the world knows, is different. For, not all Turkish women wear slouching postures, cover their heads or are expressionless like the sculpture. As far as Harrer is concerned, Metzel's sculpture is a wake up call to Europeans to see Turkish women as they are and not through the image implanted by 19th century Orientalists in the collective mind of the West.
"Turkish Delight, the title of the sculpture is as ridiculous as the same name given earlier by colonialists to a sweetmeat," Harrer says.
In Turkey, the popular chewy sweetmeat available in little rose pink cubes and sprinkled with powdered sugar is called Rahat Loukoum, or balm for the throat, an appropriate name but certainly not as erotic as Turkish Delight.
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