Exhibition review: SOUL fury, Bendigo Art Gallery

Contemporary female artists challenge stereotypes about Islam in an eclectic range of styles.

SOUL fury embraces powerful works from 16 women who explore self-determination, informed by their connection to Islam and their unique life experiences. This collaboration between Bendigo Art Gallery and Nur Shkembi provides varied interpretations of the world through women’s eyes and understanding. The pieces, which begin and end with ethereal soundtracks, incorporate a range of media from sculpture to prints and photographs, through to textiles, video animations and poetry.

The artworks explore tension. Naiza Khan’s suit of armour for an Indian warrior queen comprises a metal breastplate with layered white feathers at the waist, simultaneously hard and soft, practical yet fashionable. The metal spikes protruding from the back warn others that the wearer is protected from behind as well, intimating discord between the softness of femininity and the formidable inner strength women draw on when under duress. 

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A video of a woman in a black niqab lifting up and down from the wind rising beneath it is a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s movie scene from The Seven Year Itch. The effect of the full-length black niqab juxtaposes that of Monroe’s figure-hugging white dress, challenging assumptions as to what’s sexually alluring and what’s oppressive. Cigdem Aydemir’s video is complemented by Hoda Afshar’s pop-art style pictures which counter the models’ traditional Islamic clothes with modern props including tailored cigarettes, Coca Cola and bunny ears. The breast-feeding mother is noteworthy, the Arabic writing in an expanding circle on her henna-painted breast reminiscent of designs found on Islamic shields in places such as Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. 

Embroidery in different modes acknowledges the domesticity of women’s traditional spaces. The lush beaded outlines of the women in Zahra Imani’s large textiles glimmer, inviting reflection on where the separation occurs between the figures and their surroundings, while the hand-beaten steel warrior by Adeela Suleman contains impressive etchings in its embroidered cloth tunic.  

The Mogul-style art of Nusra Latif Qureshi features vibrant backgrounds overlaid with fine line drawings. The detail pulls the visitor in while the block colour encourages viewing from a distance, the congruence of big picture and fine detail alluding to the varying elements women are often required to manage when running a household or managing a family. This pull forward push back effect is intensified in Anida Yoeu Ali’s photographs, which centre around a woman in a sequined vermillion chador. The vibrant red on muted, even crumbling, backgrounds is arresting. The begging woman’s lush sequins on a charred black floor is stark, as is the red chador’s submersion into the turquoise ocean. Ali’s photographs contrast mundanity and opulence alongside conflicting impressions of liberty and subjugation. 

These female artists all engage with and challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Islamic heritage, art and culture while exploring women’s experiences, histories, and futures.

SOUL fury, Bendigo Art Gallery, free entry
Curator: Nur Shkembi

Artists: Idil Abdullahi, Hoda Afshar, Anida Yoeu Ali, Cigdem Aydemir, Eugenia Flynn, Shadi Ghadirian, Zeina Iaali, Zahra Imani, Mehwish Iqbal, Naiza Khan, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Hadieh Shafi, Shahzia Sikander, Adeela Suleman, Ayesha Sultana, Shireen Taweel.

SOUL fury will be on display until 30 January 2022

Annabel Harz is a career teacher, burgeoning editor and an emerging writer. She released her first book in 2017. Her second release, Journey into the Shadow and the Sunshine, was released in October 2021.