BERLIN- A little back story:

So, I am in my home city of Amman, in my art class and it is the final year in high school. I am creating this piece for my art portfolio and I remember nervously walking up to my teacher to present my idea to her. I tell her that I want to paint a 3-piece series on the butterfly effect, and I wanted to depict a woman as she frees herself from the chaos. I pause for a second and then I say “but I want to paint her nude.” My teacher, without any doubt says, “sure!”. As she says that, a fellow classmate walks past and in shock asks “is it really okay?”, confused by our hesitation my teacher claimed “why wouldn’t it be?” to which my classmate said, “well… It’s a nude.” 

Both my classmate and I went on creating our pieces exploring the female nude.

After all these years, I still wondered, from an art historical perspective, how did nudity in art, and more precisely female nudity, come about in the Arab world? What we know is that before arriving here, the female nude took on a historical path that actually began on the shores of ancient Mediterranean cultures, in particular, the classical Greek world and the Athenian polis.

In Greek times male nudes were based on gods like Apollo, he was the epitome of perfection. Female nudes were based on Venus, she represented beauty and love, which to some translated to desire too. 

“Everyone was happy until some of Christianity claimed that female nudity was an expression of sin, and that was the start of the cover up.”-Dawn O’Porter- Tate Museum
Amanda Hamati, Venus de Milo, 2020

This did not remain for too long though. Throughout the history of Western art, each age produced its own image of women based on accepted social, religious and political conduct. In classical art, a nude was an expression of the idealized beauty while in modern art the female nude became abstracted, defied, idealized, mysticised, both life giving and sinful.

The framework for the beginnings and growth of the Arab nude in the early 20th century has been closely sensitive to the major turning points in the Western art historical discourse of the nude. Religion, culture, and tradition played a huge role in determining how the female figure is to be presented. Various points and lines of tension ran through the theme of the nude in the Arab world.  

Some would think no one will find traces of nudity in Arab Art, at least not before the 21st century. On the contrary, it was there long before. It was also present during a major revolutionary time in the Arab world as countries were forming their independence against colonial powers. 

The revolution was met with many who wanted to see through the modernization and independence of their people, while others held on to tradition. Female artists were at the forefront of this fight,  their work demonstrated their commitment to social and political criticism, especially challenging the modest freedoms of the previous generations of Arab women. 

Many Arab artists, men and women, painted the female nude as a  powerful tool to react against rising authoritarian regimes and express their ideas about the emancipation of women, the subversion of cultural taboos and the impact women should have on the social and political front in the country. 

If the purpose of art is to primarily express ideas about the nature of humanity, then the naked human form would be among the most powerful ways to do so… right?

Inspired by the  presence of female nudity in Arab art throughout the years, one can wonder about the artists themselves, who they were, what they went through and why they painted the nude. Let’s take a closer look at female artists who broke down barriers and actively challenged the status quo to create a space for Arab women to express themselves freely.

Emirati columnist and researcher, and the Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud al Qassemi said it best:

“Women represent women better. You see women in deeper layers. I don’t mean to generalise. I’m sure there are men who have captured women in their essence, but women understand better the different roles that women play in society.” – Sultan al Qassemi 
Gazbia Sirry, Two Girls, Oil on Canvas, 57 x 42 cm, (1950’s)

One early nude from Arab art history was made by artist Gazbia Sirry (1925-present), known as one of the Modernist Women of Egypt, along with the remarkable artist Inji Efflatoun. According to the observations and research of Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, Sirry belonged to the generation that focused on the support of women’s causes in the early 1950’s within the Nasserite Revolution. Her work demonstrated her commitment to social and political criticism, especially challenging the modest social and political freedoms of the previous generations of Egyptian women.

Her painting of Two Girls is probably one that unabashedly reflects and demonstrates Arab female empowerment. The two girls Sirry has painted are standing straight up and leaning side by side, their bodies are painted in such a way that is meant to be natural. The breasts are uneven, the hair made natural and the skin is painted roughly. The feeling of this painting is not one that is confrontational but rather, welcoming and warm. Unlike the females painted by Yvette Achkar in Nudes by the River (seen below), Two Girls are undoubtedly Egyptian. As obvious in their skin tones and curves to their hair, eyebrows and eye shapes. It is not uncommon in the Arab world to acknowledge and validate freedom of expression of women in the west, but to come from the women of their own country, the discussion changes.

Yvette Achkar, Nudes by the River, Oil on Canvas, 33 x 24 cm, 1960’s

The search for female nude in Arab art continues and leads to Lebanon. Artist Yvette Achkar (1928-present) was one of the pioneering artists of the second generation female artists in Lebanon who appeared in the mid 1940’s when the first fine art school, Académie Libanaise des Beaux Arts, was founded.

In this painting Achkar draws three nude women lounging by a river and the scene she depicts is natural, the colors are deep and harmonious and the mood is relaxed. This sort of close-up perspective focuses the spectator’s eyes on the women and nothing else. They are not confronting the spectator, they are engaged in their own world, each in their own body and posture, you would stand and wonder what they could be thinking about? This tropical atmosphere and background is quite raw, as raw as the women in it. There is no shame, no pretending or hiding, to me, this places a depiction of the female body as one with nature and to be viewed as such.

Huguette Caland, Bribes de corps (Body Parts), oil paint on linen, 45.7 x 38.1 cm, 1973, UK

Another trailblazing Lebanese artist is Huguette Caland (1934-2004), known for her erotic abstract paintings and body landscapes, she has offered new possibilities for representations of the female body and sought to liberate the bodies of women.

The best-known body of work by Caland, Bribes de Corps (Body Parts), is a series of paintings she started in the 1970s. This work is deliberately ambiguous, transforming bodies into abstractions as a way of finding pleasure in life. In this piece, Caland envisions the female body across the entire scale of the canvas and painting it with warmly coloured hues of pink and blue. The artist’s interest in the body often took an erotic bend yet the overall narrative was the celebration of the body and the direct challenge to the narrative many women have been in. Since childhood, Huguette had been scrutinised for her appearance and body shape, the society she was brought up in often repressed female sexuality and rarely discussed it.  When asked about the provocative aspects of  her work Caland said in a 2009 interview, “Well, listen, naughty is part of life, no?”.

Hayv Kahraman, Concealed Weapon, oil on linen and acoustic foam, 200 x 117 cm, 2016

Jumping into the 21st century, the female figure flourished in the Arab art scene, from expressing violence and war, to challenging perceptions of Arab women in a more direct, straight forward manner. By this time, Baghdad born artist Hayv Kahraman (1981-present) takes center stage. 

The female figure has been Kahraman’s vessel in revealing her memories in her own narrative. The symbolic nature of the figures in her painting allows them to embody complex issues that revolved around the artist’s life, past and present. Through the body Kahraman explores the idea of feminine collectivity, identity and belonging.

“My figures are extensions of my own body, which are blended with the aesthetics of the renaissance.” – Hayv Kahraman. 

Her familiarity with Japanese, Persian, Arab and European Renaissance imagery can be seen in her piece Concealed Weapon, like in most of her artworks, this blend of technique and aesthetic can be interpreted as a projection of migrant consciousness where one dwells between residing in the homeland and the new land. In this piece one can also find the Iraqi hand-woven fans called “mahaffa”, the artist intentionally paints that over the centre of the body creating a representation of what is mended and healed memories of the past. Through the repetition of her work and the act of shredding and mending from the mahaffa she battles with history of memory and trauma and begins to heal. 

Yumna Al Arashi, Shedding Skin, 2017

The 21st century did not only introduce abstraction of female nudity but also formed a space that allowed many artists to photograph nudes in common Arab scenery. This move from classical painting to abstract to photograph is a path that seems to lead to a clearer, more visible and direct confrontation of the challenge in showcasing female nudity in the Arab world. 

A leading female Arab photographer of the 21st century is none other than Yemeni-American artist Yumna Al Arashi (1988-present). Her work focuses on human rights, feminism, sexuality, nature, and the Middle East. 

This Photograph of Bathhouse Nudes are challenging perceptions of Arab women. The piece is a part of a project called Shedding Skin. The underlying message in her photograph is to simply convey that this exists. Those outside of the culture assume a stereotypical image of Arab women. The women in the photograph do not look like any sort of preconceived stereotype, the image itself is not taken in a scene that could have been somewhere in Paris or New York.

“I really want to show these spaces for what they are, because they’re important to so many people in this culture. Why is this a closed-off space to the rest of the world? Because really, when you are in these spaces, you are just a body. It is not about how you are sitting or how many rolls you have or how hairy your legs are, there is no difference between pretty and ugly. They are places where people just laugh and talk about everything. It’s really beautiful, and really normalizing.” – Yumna Al Arashi
Sarah Bahbah, 3eib

Throughout the history of female nudity in Arab art, there has been a sense of exploration of the divesting of Arab female bodies of their clothes as they examine educational reform, spirituality, the emancipation of women, the attention to the female sensual self, the beauty standards we follow and the shamefulness. 

The word shame, in Arabic ‘3eib,’ carries a significant meaning for the code of conduct that predominantly only really applies to women. It is used whenever a woman acts against Arab culture be it using her voice in an outspoken way or showing too much affection. “It was the automatic word used to silence us,” Sarah Bahbah explains.

Sarah Bahbah (1992-present) , Palestinian, Australian-raised artists released a major controversial series called “3eib” on her social media platform this year. Her work may or may not be regarded as nude, but it insinuates nudity in its content.

The artists’ Arab roots and western upbringing allow her to create a bridge of understanding for women who feel suppressed in their nature and in their bodies. Directing and photographing herself, she brings the Arab woman in front of the lens in a more private and vulnerable setting. She then catches the viewer off guard as they read the caption at the bottom. Deliberately writing in both English and Arabic, Bahbah reaches for the women in her Arab community. 

It is an aggressive self-expression of a young woman fighting to get rid of the idea that women are the hub of sin. 

“In my previous work, I revealed my trauma but hid myself behind other bodies because I was not ready to completely expose myself to my corrupted standards of Western beauty and the violence of shame stigmatized by my Arab culture,” – Sarah Bahbah.

Sarah Bahabah’s work changes the act of looking, does not give room for subjective interpretation. The artist’s message is clear and straightforward. The written quotes lead the viewer in the perspective of the artist rather than giving way for ambiguous interpretation and judgment. This also changes what it reveals about the female subject seen: it is a more confrontational, powerful presence, confidence, and knowledgeable in the power of the female self and the impact she has. There is no denying it, the artist and the viewer are now raised to the same level and look each other frankly in the eyes and see each other’s naked reflections. It does not just reveal something about the female subject seen in the art piece it also reveals something about the viewer seeing the piece and reacting to it.

While the woman embraces her power, her national origin and international influence she becomes both muse and artist. She is the modern woman painted through the gaze of the modern woman rather than the gaze of a man.

Caught between the need to be art and the need to create art, the female subject balances the two and becomes both art and artist, influencer and muse, philosopher and idea, poet, and poem. She does not split, she is liberated. The drawing of female nudity is a complicated and rewarding experience that consistently forces its subjects to reflect on social convention and aspiration. To champion the Nude, we learn, was to stand for something far more problematic and therefore substantive than mere emulation of European art conventions. Rather, it is the aesthetic work of organizing the naked body as a social, cultural, political, international theme and is highly vulnerable to the notions of world power.