Textile Exhibit Celebrates Muslim Female Identity

Textile Exhibit Celebrates Muslim Female Identity
Westfield State University through April 5th, 2014

Westfield State University’s Arno Maris Gallery presents “Threads that Bind,” a Middle Eastern textile exhibit, which will be on display until April 5. A reception will be held on Thursday March 27 from 5:30-8 p.m. with exhibit curator Dr. Christina Swaidan, associate professor of art history at Westfield State. This exhibition inspires further discussion both about textile and fabric arts as well as Muslim culture and the representation and daily lives of Islamic women. See our discussion questions for ideas to spark conversation with your kids and/or students.

The Arno Maris Gallery at Westfield State University invites you and your family to its current exhibition, Threads that Bind. This display of Middle Eastern textiles highlights items of Muslim women’s clothing such as the abaya, an all-purpose robe-like dress that is worn both to Mosque and while entertaining family and friends at home, and the salwar kameez, which is comprised of a set of loose, pajama-like pants and a tunic top. Curator Dr. Christina Swaidan, an associate professor of art history at Westfield State, organized the exhibit with the intention of educating the college and local community about women in Islamic culture.

“When most people picture a Muslim woman, they imagine a shadow: a demure woman draped in all black,” says Swaidan. “She is viewed as devoid of personality or individuality.”

But the clothing and textiles in Threads that Bind are anything but demure or shadow-like: vibrant colors serve as the background for rich details like lace, embroidery, and other embellishments. And, according to Swaidan, the designs on the garments are often unique to the region in which they were produced, which could immediately signal the origin of a garment (or its wearer) to others familiar with the various patterns.

“The intricate weaving celebrates the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the women artists who designed and created [these items].”

Thus, instead of concealing the personalities and unique qualities of these women, the traditional items of clothing actually “highlight the creativity and boldness of Muslim women: their ability to express themselves visually while still respecting the religious obligation to be modest in appearance,” Swaidan asserts. “The abaya is very loose fitting. The woman who wears it is not relying on her bodily curves to draw attention to [herself],” she says. “When she dons the abaya, she achieves physical modesty, but maintains her personal style.”

This exhibition inspires further discussion both about textile and fabric arts as well as Muslim culture and the representation and daily lives of Islamic women.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you express your personality through the clothes you wear? How do you reconcile popular ideas about dress (including issues of function and modesty) with your own preferred methods of self-expression?
  • Do a Google image search for “salwar kameez” and “abaya.” How many different colors, styles, and embellishments do you see in the search results? What “personality” would you guess the wearer might have based on the colors, textures, and designs on each one?
  • What items of clothing in Western culture could be compared to the abaya and the salwar kameez (both in terms of look and function)?
  • What indications of region or craftsmanship can you identify in the clothing in the exhibition? What about in the clothing you are wearing right now?
  • Why do you think the image of the Muslim woman “in shadow, demure and devoid of personality or individuality” is so prevalent? Why might this incorrect idea be harmful? What can you do to correct that stereotype?

Join Dr. Swaidan for a reception at the Maris gallery on Thursday, March 27, 2014,  from 5:30 to 8pm.

The Arno Maris gallery is located on the second floor of the Ely Building on the campus of Westfield State. Normal hours are 2-5pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; 2-7pm on Thursdays; and 1-5pm on Saturdays. 577 Western Ave. Westfield, MA. 413-572-5236. For more information, visit the gallery website: www.westfield.ma.edu.

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