11 Works on Paper by Shayma Aziz

A State of Body 

A State of Body is a drawing/ painting project investigating the position of the female body in both western fine art history and contemporary times within the Middle East region. It explores the sexuality, temperament, and mental state of the portrayed figure. In an act of reclaiming space, the project challenges and troubles the male gaze. 

Previous chapters of this project included "Women in Black" (produced in Cairo, exhibited in Beirut 2009), where female figures clad in black were portrayed in a way that menacingly reminds us of the gradual disappearance of female bodies from public spaces. 

Other chapters of the project included two exhibitions, “Silent Erosion” (Lot 17 Gallery, Cairo 2010) and “Bleeding Senses” (Galerie 392Rmeil393, Beirut 2016), that deal with the sensorial depletion such figures are subjected to. The project series mourns the disappearance of female bodies, and brings a representation of them back on the flat painting surface, desolately staring back at us. In "A State of Body," a retrospective selection was shown at the Goethe Institute in Cairo 2018. 

The project was born in 2007, a few months after the infamous and random mob attacks on women during Eid holidays after Ramadan. Often while walking in Central Cairo, where I then lived, I would notice that I was the only one in the crowd who was not dressed in a veil and long covering garments. I felt alone and alienated. I felt rejected and I felt like a freak. I was judged by the passersby, men and women, I would see the looks of slut-shaming on my body, and many times there were touches too, many and random touches. Sexual harassment and assault is—unfortunately—an almost normalized behavior, blessed by Muslim clerics and those who speak of “traditions” against women who don’t comply with the socially and/or religiously approved dress code. 

I saw my body and all of these women’s bodies disappearing in the public sphere: streets, public transport, parks, beaches, etc. A woman can never be left alone. If she appears unaccompanied in public spaces, she must be asking to be harassed or approached by strangers, no matter how she is dressed. I saw the bodies of women being deleted, eroded… disappearing. A woman’s place is indoors, not outdoors. She belongs in the house to look after and raise a family. A woman can never have access to public spaces like men do. 

I, a scholar of western art, saw how nude models took presence in western painting and sculpture, and how that conflicted with or contradicted my reality. How I couldn't find models to paint or study for this project and relied on friends who may or may not agree to be painted nude, and who mostly didn’t necessarily know how to model! 

I obsessively started painting women's bodies in black ink. You see, when your surface is white, and you are writing or sketching in black, then you own this presence. I started putting women’s bodies painted in black on plain white paper. Isolated from their world and accentuated on the surface, they posed in different states of mind and body, temperaments, or mental states. Sometimes mocking the submissive poses pictured in western painting, looking bored, and at others in playful mode, or thoughtful. 

Women are the subject of study but are also staring back from these white surfaces, even after they have been stripped of any features or personification. We are still here. No matter how much you try to delete us, our bodies and our presences remain alive.