x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Treasured times over tea and the niqab help depict Arab women

Patricia Millns uses the niqab to evoke the presence of the Arab women whose stories, as told to the artist over tea, are the backbone of her exhibition.

The artworks in the exhibition emra'a adornment include writings that are excerpts of conversations between Patricia Millns and the Arab women she has met in the Gulf. Courtesy Grace & Garbo
The artworks in the exhibition emra'a adornment include writings that are excerpts of conversations between Patricia Millns and the Arab women she has met in the Gulf. Courtesy Grace & Garbo

In 30 years of living around the Gulf, the artist Patricia Millns has got to know a legion of Arab women via the hospitable medium of afternoon tea.

Emra'a adornment, her latest solo show at Tashkeel, is a paean to that convivial atmosphere. To express this, however, Millns has used a garment that has become one of the most contentious cultural symbols in contemporary thinking about the Middle East: the niqab - a woman's face veil.

"Dress has become highly politicised in the 21st century and the niqab has taken on some political significance it was never meant to have," says Millns. "That's not come from the wearer, it's come from viewers misconstruing what it is."

Emra'a adornment is a series of reimaginings of the niqab that the artist invites the viewer to pick up and wear. "I've not presented anything that doesn't have a base as something to be worn," says Millns.

Perched totem-like on circular stands, there are veils constructed with conjoined cups, saucers and dainty forks alongside several ruff-like pieces that are made of sewn together teabags. It is all material that she associates with the generous world of women in the Arab world talking over tea.

Tucked away inside these works are tiny traces of writing that are so small they look like stitches. These are excerpts of conversations between Millns and the women she has met in her time in the Gulf. "It is a culmination of many years of knowing women who wear the niqab and asking them why they wear it," she explains. "Every woman I spoke to said it was their choice. Many talked about it as a sort of protection and that they feel safer wearing it."

Millns has previously exhibited work on the agal, the black rope used to hold the gutra (the cloth that forms a part of the headdress worn by Arab men) in place, for which she asked 400 Emirati men why they continue to wear this garment. Hanging 400 agals from a dimly lit wall in the Dubai International Finance Centre, the artist attached a card to each with the reflections on its personal importance - written by the wearer.

In this latest show, however, the artist explores how an object can evoke the presence of an individual despite their physical absence. By encapsulating those dearly held conversations in a hand-stitched object - and via the particularly potent cultural form of the niqab - the artist seems to celebrate both the women she has met in her time in the Middle East and the deeper dimension of understanding that's to be had here over a good cup of tea.

Until January 18 at Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba, Dubai