To begin, I look to the eyes—a set of drawings on the left wall of the gallery, nude figures, some not quite human, festering with evil eyes. Two of the drawings featuring bodies in a gradient of melanin pigment remain somewhat recognizable, and then there is an assemblage of breasts, compartmentalized and hoarded into a pile, also decorated with evil eyes.
Can even the most hyper-sexualized fragments of us coalesce, organize, talk or look back? In of beast, of virgin—a recent solo exhibit at Philadelphia’s Twelve Gates Art Gallery by Saba Taj, who is the director of The Carrack Modern Art in Durham—the queer Muslima artist presents the fraught contradictions between seeing and what it means to be seen.
The “evil eye” is a recurring motif in Saba’s work. Many have traced its origin to ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. In Islam, it’s called nazar, rooted in the belief that the covetous gaze can instigate harmful consequences upon the receiver. In turn, rituals of protection have been fashioned, one of the most ubiquitous being the symbol of a blue eye, often in the form of a charm or an amulet, worn to repel the dangers of those who see and want.
It is a gendered burden to be perpetually knowable and easily consumed, with or without consent. In his landmark book Ways of Seeing, artist and critic John Berger writes, “[M]en act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves … Thus, she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
This expectation of feminized transparency can be observed in recurring justifications used by cis men for misogynist violence against intimate partners, friends, sex workers, and strangers—that they felt “tricked” by a woman’s appearance, or they were unfairly or unclearly refused. Saba’s use of the evil eye subverts this misogynist expectation. Traditionally, the evil eye is worn to repel the gaze. By engulfing figures with it, Saba insinuates that the viewer will never have full access to examine, dissect, or lay claim.
One of the first times I meet Saba, then still a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, she asked if I would wear one of her unique textile pieces during a class presentation. She had sewn a burqa in preppy floral fabric, a niqab out of denim, and the chador I would wear, a rich green velvet with gold tassels, evocative of the “curtain” gown worn in Gone with the Wind. The pieces were stunning, almost couture, yet they wielded a sharp sense of humor—who’s afraid of a big bad Muslim in Lily Pulitzer analog?
Under what conditions can a woman be seen without also being designated an object? Must she be concealed, disguised? Must these conditions be militant? In A Dying Colonialism, Frantz Fanon writes about the conditions experienced by Algerian women living under French colonialism, the settler’s gaze, and Algerian women’s practices of concealment as defiance. “[T]he European experiences his relation with the Algerian woman at a highly complex level,” Fanon writes. “There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession. This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself.”
More than half a century later and thousands of miles away, the clothing of Muslim women in the United States, alongside and in addition to the garments worn by Sikhs and Hindus, remain highly scrutinized and politicized, a landscape for colonial culture mapping. With Trump issuing executive orders like “The Muslim Ban,” the active fomenting of anti-Muslim hatred is forthright, and the veiled woman is a highly visible target for white-settler paranoia.
Rather than petition for softened assimilation, Saba’s collages make room for the contradictions imposed on racialized, feminized bodies, culling a variety of source material, from pornography and National Geographic photo essays to fragments of alien-like orchids, birds, and trees. Saba combines all of these to create worlds that are neither brimming with abject suffering nor purely utopic, a place somewhat familiar but not yet inhabited—a kind of queer brown science-fiction, or what Alexis Pauline Gumbs might call “speculative documentary.” This kind of representation—which makes room for the erotic, the militant, and the unclean—is a language of resistance. I can’t help but notice how differently Saba’s work positions itself in comparison with Shepard Fairey’s widely distributed iconography of a woman in an American flag hijab.
What is the use of our attempts to communicate solidarity if not to unsettle the very logic of violence waged upon our communities—the logic that tells us we need to adapt and integrate into the patriotic pageant, the lawful container, in order to be seen and deemed worthy of a life? The various hybrid figures in Saba’s collage work are not concerned with rationalized palatability. They belong to the wild incomplete.
Sometimes, Saba’s work feels like it emerges out of a secret language of women, a visual manifestation of gossip itself, a collaborative and layered testimony. In her essay “Witch-hunt”, which explores gossip’s origins as a clandestine social practice and form of intimate speech between women that became pejorative and criminalized, Hannah Black writes, “The gossip, like the witch, was persecuted as if she were an outlaw, instead of at the heart of her community. Her superpower is hanging out—giving, sharing, spending and wasting time together; she provides material for this activity. She brings news, warnings and information. Worlds appear from her big mouth.”
Saba’s hybrid figures are rarely ever alone; more often, they are engaged in some kind of social life—ecological, oceanic, communicating in ways we cannot dictate. Her work has become a kind of sanctuary for me, a word that partially derives its etymology in describing a space that is holy but also private. For all the magnificent colors and flamboyant details of Saba’s collage work, there is also the intimation of never really knowing who these figures are, what battles they have waged, where they came from, what gods they worship, how they fuck, how they reproduce: questions that have been posed against the throats of women for hundreds of years. Perhaps these hybrid figures are immortal. They host a variety of wounds, but also hordes of shared, inherited secrets, cumulative as glitter.