How artist Farwa Moledina is reclaiming Orientalist stereotypes

Through her textile and photographic work, Moledina is fighting against the fetishisation of Muslim and Eastern women

By Charlotte Russell


Printed onto a pale, translucent drape, a photograph of a woman peering behind an ornately decorated curtain has been superimposed; her white hijab and white sleeve blend into the background. She remains hidden as she pulls the curtain over her face but by leaning closer to inspect the woman, any voyeuristic motive is deflected by the embroidered phrase “Not Your Fantasy” which is repeated across the artwork.


Textile and photographic artist Farwa Moledina’s work Not Your Fantasy (2018) is a direct response to Orientalism. As noted in Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), ‘Orientalism’ constructs stereotypes of the Middle East from a solely Western perspective, which in turn has allowed for manipulated, fantastical, and constructed depictions of Middle Eastern culture.


Not Your Fantasy I, (sublimation print on polyester, digital embroidery), Birmingham School of Art, 2018

Through her work, Moledina aims to address and reclaim the Orientalist, voyeuristic, and fetishised perspective of Muslim women, and women of colour. As a Muslim woman who has moved to the UK from the UAE, her experience has allowed for a genuine and sensitive approach to representation. In turn, through her combined use of photography, pattern, and textile, her art has enabled honest depictions of Muslim women to enter into the art historical canon. I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak to her about her work.


What is the inspiration behind your practice?


My work is inspired by my move from the Middle East to the UK and my Muslim faith, and is often concerned with issues surrounding Muslim women and women of colour generally. I’m very inspired by women artists like Maimouna Guerresi and Lalla Essaydi.


As a woman artist working today, what challenges do you feel you face in comparison to your male counterparts?

I think myself, along with all womxn artists, feel our work is less valued and considered unimportant compared to our male counterparts, and I think this is particularly true for womxn artists of colour. The western male narrative has always dominated the art world both historically and in the present, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by a network of incredibly supportive and intelligent women that help to remind me that our voices are important and deserve to be heard.


“I hope to create critical pieces that defy the objectification and fantastical representations of the Eastern woman and depict us as the multi-faceted, intelligent human beings that we are.“ – Farwa Moledina

Not Your Fantasy intends to oppose the Orientalist stereotypes that have been placed upon Muslim women in both art history and contemporary society. Could you expand upon how important it is for you to challenge these attitudes in your work?

Reclaiming Orientalist stereotypes both past and present is a very important aspect of my work. Orientalist stereotyping of Muslim and Eastern women is still very much prevalent today and we’re often thought of as either exotic or oppressed, with no in-between. The dehumanisation and fetishisation of the Muslim and Eastern woman in history, art, film, literature, and general daily life must be addressed and opposed. Through my work, I hope to create critical pieces that defy the objectification and fantastical representations of the Eastern woman and depict us as the multi-faceted, intelligent human beings that we are.


Detail shot from Not Your Fantasy II, (sublimation print on polyester, digital embroidery), Birmingham School of Art, 2018

Snippets of Jean-Auguste Dominque’s Le Grande Odalisque feature within the robe of Not Your Fantasy, and in Not Your Harem Girl. Why have you chosen to depict this particular piece in your work?


In this painting, Ingres has created a subtle aura of eroticism and the exotic with his use of damask silks, hookah’s, and peacock feathers. Ingres is known for creating anatomical forms that were inaccurate and almost deformed and this is seen most notably in the Grande Odalisque where the figure is painted as having too many vertebrae. These extra vertebrae were necessary to allow the figure to have an elongated curved back whilst also raising her head.


This practise is known formally as the ‘Serpentine Line’, or a ‘Line of Beauty’. The serpentine line brings about ideas of gender assumptions and an ideal ‘feminine’: it allowed for paintings of a sensual nature, for the ‘female’ to appear sinuous and elegant. In this work, Ingres was working within a visual tradition that included artists such as Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510) and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538).


“I attempt to subvert the white male narrative, so it is very important for me to look back at art history when making new work.“ – Farwa Moledina

These nudes were often titled Venus in order to disguise paintings of the female nude within classical mythology. Ingres, however, titled his painting in order to provoke ideas of the exotic Orient; the French term ‘odalisque’ after all translates to a female slave or concubine in a harem. Ingres’ nude is made acceptable due to its geographical distance, and its suggested exoticism. This absolute disregard for, and dehumanisation of the Eastern woman by Ingres is what inspired me to include this particular painting in my work.


How important is it that you look back at art history when creating new pieces?


My works are often made in response to an existing historical artwork or movement, where I attempt to subvert the white male narrative, so it is very important for me to look back at art history when making new work.


Not Your Harem Girl, 2018

Your work also offers an emotional, poignant response to the problematic depictions and expectations of Muslim women. If your art exists as one example of positive representation, how do you think the future looks for the representation of Muslim women in contemporary art?


I think now more than ever there is an increase in the number of Muslim women artists, and I’m hoping that this creates more nuanced debate regarding Muslim female identity within contemporary art.


And finally, what do you think the future looks like for contemporary women artists?


This is a tough one! I think that the art world has been dominated by the patriarchy for too long. Contemporary womxn artists are producing innovative, engaging, and critical work and we won’t be backing down anytime soon!!


Explore more of Moledina’s work on her website.