the group art exhibition inspired by 11th century arabic love poems
48 female artists from all over the world celebrate defiant Arabic poems of old in a new exhibition, 'Radical Love: Female Lust.'
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Radical Love: Female Lust is a brand new exhibition featuring the work of 48 emerging female artists. Inspired by breathtaking poetry written thousands of years ago by women across the Arab world, the exhibition's aim is simple: to respond to expressions of female vitality through art (and to raise money for the Global Fund for Women in the process). The show opened last week with a performance from i-D Class of 2017-er Nilufer Yanya, and continues until March 6. Radical Love marks the first time any of these words have been showcased publicly before. To celebrate, we spoke to Radical Love founder Róisín O' Loughlin about the exhibition, and why now felt like as good a time as any to come together in solidarity and celebrate the timeless female lust for love and life.
Can you tell us how Radical Love first came about?
I founded Radical Love after the Paris attacks of November 2015 as a platform to promote love through art. It was a response to the sharp rise in Islamophobia and vitriol aimed at refugees fleeing violence. I held a small gig that Christmas and made £1270 for Hand in Hand with Syria and the IRC, and tried to figure out what to do next.
The Female Lust show sees 24 poems interpreted by 48 women artists around the world. Where did your passion for Arabic poetry first come from?
A couple of months after the gig, I was on a bus back from seeing my friend's play in Hull when I stumbled across a poem from the 11th century by Wallada bint al-Mustakfi on Google. Wallada's poem was the first I'd read by an Arab woman. What was striking was that in the 11th century, she was essentially making the same claims to autonomy and freedom of sexuality that women in 2017 are still fighting for. I then found a collection by Abdullah al-Udhari of incredible poems written by women across the Arab world, and was taken with how beautifully they captured female vitality in its myriad forms. I felt they illuminated something about women that was timeless.
Did you know straight away that you wanted to get the works out there?
Yeah, I knew I wanted to share them with a modern audience for a few reasons. Firstly, they are just brilliant pieces of writing. They read like the best pop lyrics — short and sweet in their intense pride and defiance, lovesick, longing, and lust. Secondly, I liked the idea of circumventing the notion of the 'West liberating the East' by having these Arab and Muslim women — who are so often underestimated — inspire artists across the globe. Thirdly, female voices have been buried across history and those that survive are usually royal. So it was exciting that these poems express the private worlds of women ranging from slaves and concubines to wits to princesses. They challenge preconceptions of faith, of class, of the female experience long ago.
I wanted to show them in a way that captured their dynamic spirit and use them as a platform for women who are often spoken for or about, but not listened to. I asked artists from cultures around the world to collaborate with these long-gone poets, asserting their vitality in the face of those who would deny it. With so much bizarre anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK, I also wanted [to include] women who were of Asian, African, and Eastern European descent. The focus is still on helping Syria, so we are selling the art and giving half the profits to Syrian refugees.
How did you go about pulling it all together?
The gig I'd held for Syria was at The Crypt Gallery, and I knew that was the space I wanted for this [exhibition] for a few reasons. It was used as a burial ground, which felt like the perfect place to awaken the words of these long silent poets. During both World Wars, it was used as a bunker. And with the climate [becoming] increasingly hostile, I liked the idea of it being a site of protection. The biggest reason was that outside there are four Caryatids, which I first read were "holding up the sorrows of the world" and [learned] later that they symbolized feminine resistance. Either way, having them look after the show lent it a powerful force.
I knew a few of the artists — like Kit Dambite, who I love — but the vast majority I just found online. I wrote asking them to take part. It was kind of an instinctive thing, a reaction to the work, something about it that felt special and original. For example: Mikéla Henry-Lowe's positive and celebratory images of black women, or Hana Perlas's photography of intimate moments on Cairo backstreets. What's remarkable is how deeply committed the artists were to the project.
What is it about the poems that inspires you? Is there a common thread between the works?
They're deeply personal but not performative. I'm uneasy by how we're affected as individuals by the self-consciousness and self-analysis of the social media age we're in. We're communicating in ways designed to cause an effect — the outcome dictating the expression — but these poems didn't feel like that to me. They felt pure and raw and thus totally free, without cynicism. Also, they're just so good. "I know too well those marvelous lips, by Allah I love sipping their finerthanwine delicious dew."
In what way do the artworks capture the poems's spirit?
I posted out parcels to the artists, so they opened it as a gift, with no idea what poem they'd receive (in Arabic and English). We didn't discuss the poem or what they would create in advance, so the response was theirs alone. The results are brilliant and surprising — from the sensitivity of Aula al Ayoubi's painting to the irreverence of Anu Ambasna's work.
How important is it that these voices are heard today, especially in light of what's happening in the US right now?
Vital. It's nuts, people seem to want to speak for these women but not let them speak for themselves. We couldn't get any funding for the show — it was deemed too risky or controversial. Potential sponsorship came with caveats about what the artists could make, which defeated its purpose. So I saved up and spent thousands of pounds to make it happen. I can't begin to tell you how poor I am, but that's how important it is to me that these voices are heard. The show still really really needs donations, however small, here.
We've got to dismantle the stereotypes that deny people's humanity and our shared experience. The show has many different voices of women from typically Muslim cultures as diverse as Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, Palestine, Bangladesh, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Libya, as well as those of Black African Muslim women. It totally rubbishes the notion of 'a single Muslim' narrative. Equally, it was important to have a variety of religious practice within that. Some [artists] actively practice Islam, others are non-religious, others are Jewish. A woman isn't more or less worthy of protection or respect based on who, if anyone, she prays to.
What's the main thing you hope people take away from the show?
Without question, the coolest thing about the show is having Muslim teenage girls see it. Many have been emotional, saying they've never been to a gallery before, so I'm thrilled they get to experience one that celebrates the resilience, courage, and vulnerability of women of their faith and culture. I love how precious teenagers are and how much things mean to them. This show is a love letter from girls to girls.
'Radical Love: Female Lust' is on view at London's Crypt Gallery until March 6. Profits from the exhibition will go to the Global Fund for Women helping Syria's refugees.
Text Matthew Whitehouse