Half the Sky

Portrait of soon to be wed Faiz Mohammed, 40, and Ghulam Haider, 11, at her home in a rural village of Damarda in Ghor province. Ghulam said she is sad to be getting engaged as she wanted to be a teacher. Her favorite class was Dari, the local language, before she was made to drop out of school. Married girls are seldom found in school, limiting their economic and social opportunities. Parents sometimes remove their daughters from school to protect them from the possibility of sexual activity outside of wedlock. It is hard to say exactly how many young marriages take place, but according to the Afghan women's ministry and women's NGOs, approximately 57 percent of Afghan girls get married before the legal age of 16. In addition, once the girl's father has agreed to the engagement, she is pulled out of school immediately. Early pregnancies also result in an increase in complications during child birth. (Stephanie Sinclair / April 10, 2012)

Half the Sky: Visualized is an artistic re-framing of the narrative call to arms in the book Half the Sky (by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn). The book is a moving indictment of one of the most persistent forms of human rights violation — the oppression of women and girls. Unlike the book, this exhibit proffers no solutions for the worlds it uncovers. This is an empathic exploration, one that sets up an artistic dialectic in contemporary art, juxtaposing documentary photography/filmmaking (i.e., journalism) with more expressive contemporary approaches (art).

This exhibit plumbs abuse and exploitation from the two angles simultaneously — closing in from both objective and subjective perspectives. A consistent strategy is intimacy and sensuality: this work provides an experience that pours over a viewer, from the initial immersion into sound upon crossing the threshold into the gallery (the voices of victims telling their stories) to the final surreal impression of Shirin Neshat's short film "Pulse," which caps the viewer's journey.

The framing is deliberately obverse: opening with straightforward, compelling first-person narrative (Stephanie Sinclair's "Too Young to Wed") and closing with a muted crescendo of inarticulate yearning rendered cinematically in Alfred Hitchock-ian shades of silvery black and white (Neshat).

In between, approaches range from sculptural (Kiki Smith's "Daisy Chain") to painterly (Penny Siopis's "Shame Series"), from tangents on ambivalent identities (Shirin Neshat's recumbent female figure, laid out on a slab like a banquet — or a corpse) to fragmented perception (Alfredo Jaar's portrait of a woman revealed piecemeal via an installation of scattered mirrors).

Throughout, moments are delivered with indelible impact. In Sinclair's documentary, the voices of young girls (6, 7, 8 years old) tell the story of their delivery, by their own parents, to the marriage bed of brutal men four times their age. Their young faces, shy, timorous, angry, veiled, lovely, childlike, relate their violation; one girl's mutilated face — its nose cut away — testifies to her abuse in a way words ("the blood poured down") cannot equal. Across the room, a still photograph of a young girl, a child herself, restrained by older women, knees pulled up as if in in childbirth, screaming, is being circumcised — her genitalia cut away as a means of "controlling" her libido.

The conundrum for documentary photographers is contemporary. Journalistic photographers have no safe place to stand: To unveil exploitation, must we exploit anew — publish the faces of the abused for public consumption? Further, as viewers, we are complicit, yet how can we bear the sight of this? Admire the aesthetic qualities of the images?

The countering response here is provided by a Muslim expatriate living in the U.S., Shirin Neshat. In her short black and white film "Pulse," she deals with repression from the most abstract and utterly subjective of vantage points. In a dreamlike feat of cinematic evocation, she imagines shadowy room, with one small window set high in the wall (as if in a prison). On the floor, transfixed by the emanations of a radio, a woman moves to the pulse of a keening song — reaching for its source as a seedling cranes for its first glimpse of light. For this Muslim woman music and dance are forbidden; and consequently the yearning is palpable.


Half the Sky: Visualized

Ends April 19, Contemporary Art Galleries, University of Connecticut, Art and Art History Building, 830 Bolton Road, Storrs, (860) 486-1511, contemporaryartgalleries.uconn.edu

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