What sound does a hymen make when it breaks? Potentially one that echoes throughout a woman’s universe, sometimes with dreadful consequences. In If a hymen breaks and no one hears it, UAE-Oman based visual artist Reem Falaknaz takes the viewer through the journey of a woman seeking for a hymen reconstruction in the Arab world. The display of advertising, operating theaters, budget outlines and conversations with doctors and charlatans puts us in front of a central question that is never asked, simply because it bypasses any religion: why is virginity considered a value, instead of something that simply is, or isn’t, at a certain point of a woman’s life?
If Reem Falaknaz’s work focuses on a surgery whose market exists to cope with a dangerous stigma, Lara Chahine’s images are centered around a subtler but equally powerful pressure. They deal with Lebanese women’s pursuit of aesthetic perfection, instigated by the unrealistic image of female beauty that women of any age, in and out of Lebanon, are subjected to.
Her series Bless Your Beauty emphasises how the female body, whether covered or uncovered, is always public, judged and symbolically charged. The images, produced during a period of time that encompasses the October revolution, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Beirut blast, are at times introspective, others provocative. They evoke the truth that being born a woman comes with an additional cost, whatever else is happening in history and politics. A full awareness of this burden, imposed from the outside, comes hand in hand with the energy and desire to push for a natural, explicit, unapologetic sensuality.
The exhibition, which features over 40 art pieces including photography, digital media and video installation, addresses pressing issues that Arab feminism is concerned with using a light, playful visual vocabulary. As curator Rana Ghanem points out, it challenges audiences with “work that is both humorous and critical, ultimately putting on an entertaining, biting show that is witty, charged, emotional, and intelligent.”
If the show is taking place in the layered, fast-changing society of Dubai, where it naturally attracts a liberal public and is hard to ignore for others, the issues it brings up are far from being resolved in many western countries. Here, an open resistance to certain forms of women’s freedom is replaced by a worrisome, hypocritical compromise that makes it easier to turn away from realities that ask for a change.