The Whole World Has Gone Joyously Mad
June 8-July 16, 2016
I first encountered Faraj’s work this year at Papier in Joyce Yahouda Gallery’s booth, tucked away around a corner, presumably because of their explicit erotic content. The lovely, bleeding watercolour images of recumbent women exposing themselves in a sexual and unabashed attitude were quite striking, and I found myself drawn to them over and over throughout the event. While this solo exhibition, The Whole World Has Gone Joyously Mad, at Joyce Yahouda Gallery also deals with female nudity, the take is decidedly more political. Ranging from whimsical yet powerful portraits of Muslim feminists to representations of the Montreal tuition hike activists, this installation by Faraj honours the courage of those women who use their nudity to protest. According to Faraj, they inevitably also display their vulnerability by such bold acts which use their own bodies to make a statement. To me, that is a further testament of their courage.
One enters this installation by passing through two sentinels—phallic tree trunks, tipped with a cadmium red that almost glows and drips down the shaft. To exit the installation, one must also pass these guards, each of which bears the title Lingam. Lingams are egg-shaped, or round-tipped, pillar-shaped representations of the penis, usually in stone, which are honoured in India as symbols of the great god Shiva, the destroyer. They make an intriguing counterpoint to the feminist celebration on the wall, providing balance and seemingly, protection in the way you must walk between them to access the watercolours. They are the sacred masculine, perhaps representing the men who stand by our side and understand that the true nature of feminism is equality, not female supremacy. In India, Lingams are normally bathed in milk to be honoured, but these are tipped with red like blood, which could represent intensity of feeling, a throbbing erection, or the bleeding, vulnerable and damaged masculine principle. I believe the ambiguity added a successful layer of mystery to this installation.
The watercolours span the largest wall of the gallery in a crowded grid which binds the portraits together in sisterhood. Faraj works in her familiar bleeding, stained style, but these are a little more hard-edged. These girls have some boundaries. They know what they want, and they want it now. Their mouths are open, their breasts bared, and often one or two arms are raised in vocalization, but their words are written on their chests.
These works are a loving tribute to those women who use their bodies to speak their minds. Faraj’s past work has been more distinctly sexual, a diversity of bodies merged in embrace or joyful abandon, their blurred boundaries and splayed limbs reflecting a wonderful freedom, while these works are a bit more resolved, and not sexualized. They are nudity as frankness, as honesty, and as protest.
Among the many striking and successful watercolours, a few stood out as my favourites. In Free the Nipple circles represent breasts with a red dot in the center, looking like targets drawn all over her brown skin. In another portrait, a smoking and leather-cuffed brunette has words in Arabic written on her body, as well as the name “Amina”, which is indubitably Amina Wadud, feminist cleric and professor of Islamic studies.
Considering Faraj’s watercolour stain paintings, one cannot help but think of Helen Frankenthauler’s abstract stain painting of the 50s. Faraj takes such techniques to a new level in her splendid watercolours, which go beyond political statement into a celebratory expression of joie de vivre. These women love life and will fight for the freedom to live as they want.