Shatha Altowai’s Scratched Identities.
Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, and to enjoy the arts…”
This is what Art27 Scotland aims to promote, through exploring the relationship between human and cultural rights and engaging people in discussions of cultural participation and free artistic expression. Based at the Southside Community Centre in Edinburgh, this non-profit organisation celebrates Scotland’s connection to the rest of the world and fosters understanding of others’ lived experience by working with locally based, international artists-in-residence.
One of them is Shatha Altowai, a Yemeni artist in exile whose exhibition, Scratched Identities, focuses on the position of women in Yemeni society, specifically the ways they are forced to hide their identities due to societal pressures. The exhibition features photographs of Yemeni women with their faces scratched off or covered by stickers, as well as paintings of abstract figures in dreamy landscapes.
Altowai explains that in Yemen, when girls reach a certain age – usually around 11 or 12 years old – they are forced to not show their face in public. This includes online spaces and official documents. She tells the story of being in school and seeing her older friend’s school report with the picture of her face covered by a flower sticker: ‘she is a “grown woman” now and it would be shameful to show her face.’ This was the first time she started to realise how men and women are treated differently in society, and it would eventually become the inspiration behind her ‘Scratched Identities’ exhibition.
Having moved from Yemen to Edinburgh only a year ago, Altowai experienced first-hand the cultural constraints put on women in her home country. She agrees that wearing a head scarf or the niqab should not be seen as inherently oppressive, but that women need to have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their body and their life. A freedom she never felt she had in Yemen.
She previously received a lot of hate for her art and only now feels safe and comfortable enough to explore more sensitive topics, such as the position of women in Yemeni society. Her stay in Scotland is made possible thanks to the Artist’s Protection Fund, which helps artists to relocate from unsafe environments to institutions in countries where they can create art freely; in this case, to the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh.
It is vital that artists like Altowai have the creative freedom and financial means to express themselves and contribute to important cultural discussions. Women are still at a disadvantage in the art world and in society more broadly, but that is exactly why we need to make sure their voices are being heard. This requires not only the ideal of cultural freedom, but also long-term security and the practical means to work. Altowai’s year-long residency at the IASH is ending this November, her visa is expiring, and she is still uncertain where she will go next. Nonetheless, she hopes to keep creating art and has another exhibition coming up in the Old College, which will focus on people’s everyday experiences living in war-torn Yemen.
Image courtesy of Eliška Suchochlebová