Let me begin this post by explaining that my religious views are most adequately summarized by the secular prophet, Chuck Klosterman. I espouse a partial belief in everything; “I’m prone to believe that just about any religious ideology is potentially accurate, regardless of how ridiculous it might seem (or be).” Consequently, this post is not about religious dogma; it is not about the Qu’ran, the Hadith, the Old Testament, or “The Letter Killeth” of Jim Jones. However, like these texts, I do wish to examine the dichotomy of creation and destruction, coverage and exposure, art and science.
With that grandiose opening, let me introduce the primary antagonist of this post: Princess Hijab. Princess Hijab is an anonymous Paris-based guerilla (graffitti?) artist who uses a jumbo marker pen or dripping black paint to “hijab-ize” billboards featuring scantily clad or provocatively poised models. She began her “niqab intervention” campaign in 2006, almost two years after the French Senate approved a law banning Muslim head scarves and other “ostensible” religious apparel (e.g. large Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and Sikh turbans). More recently, in September 2010, the French Senate passed a bill banning the niquab and the burqa (face covering veils). In light of these events, some have interpreted Princess Hijab’s art as a conservative religious reaction to the burqa ban and to the depraved exhibition of nakedness and sexuality. Others regard her as an feminist provocateur, crusading against the exploitation of women and agitating them to take ownership of their bodies.
However, Princess Hijab maintains that she is not defending or championing the cause of any group. The Princess has told reporters that she began her experimentation with veils while making spandex outfits that enveloped bodies – “more art than fashion,” she says. To (try to) understand her intentions, one must consider her artistic background and examine the roots of graffiti in abstract expressionism.
The artist Susan Stewart described graffiti as the “romantic heir to abstraction expressionism.” Abstract Expressionism is an avante-garde artistic movement that flourished in New York in the 1940s. Its roster included artists who repudiated accepted conventions in techniques and subject matter The “New York School” sought to communicate important truths of human experience and psyche through simple, abstract forms or symbols rather than purely literal depictions. They asserted that the symbols they painted had no explicit meaning but derived from the artist’s unconscious. Nonetheless, these symbols were communicative because they could speak to the same faculty in the viewer.
Art critics purport that specific patterns of recognition that enable perception and cognition underlie the variety of compositional formats used by the Abstract Expressionists. Because of our physical experience of existing and acting in a universe (e.g. perceiving the environment, moving our bodies, and exerting and experiencing force), we form fundamental conceptual structures which we use to organize thought across a range of more abstract domains. For example, the containment schema structures our experience of putting objects into and taking them out of a bounded area. These patterns are metaphorically extended to structure nonphysical, nonvisual experiences. For example, we get lost in a book, we fall in love, we leave out some details.
Additionally, abstract expressionism is often characterized by the manner in which the pictorial space is created. Abstract expressionists emphasized the open, more immediate surface and used paint in a manner that allowed the surface to breathe. They did not attempt to disguise the canvas as an easel painting by using insulating finishes. Instead, they used enamel paint to reflect light across the surface of the canvas or soaked thinned paint into the unprimed canvas. Elmer Bischoff explained these practices by describing the canvas as the “area of search.” Whereas artists who used representational forms considered the canvas as an illusionist window onto the world, the abstract expressionists handled it as an autonomous, self-referential object.
Like abstract expressionism, the visual vocabulary of graffiti art does not include objects or events but rather forms and features that .communicate by evoking physical associations. In fact, graffiti artists have clarified the tradition of using words in graffiti by stating that that they interpret the alphabet as a set of letters which provide abstract structures like musical notes. They seek to obliterate the meaning of the word, using it as a reference point from which they can begin to improvise.
You may wonder why I have been rambling about abstract and nonrepresentational art. You may point out the Princess Hijab reproduces one object, the hijab – an explicit subject matter. However, I would contend that Princess Hijab is not rendering the hijab as an object, but rather as an abstract symbol that can stimulate certain reactions in a more powerful way than conventional modes of expression. Princess Hijab uses the hijab to compel viewers to consider the act and experience of covering.
Warning…sh&t’s about to get dense…
In his book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff argued that individuals automatically categorize people, animals, and physical objects. He purported that we structure our knowledge of the world in terms of idealized cognitive models (ICMs), which include image schemas. Image schemas “emerge as meaninful structures for us chiefly at the level of our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions.” Reasoning patterns based on image schemata (imagistic reasoning patterns) are mapped onto reasoning patterns based on abstract reasoning (abstract reasoning patterns) via conceptual metaphors. Burgman and Lakoff describe three variations of the “over” schema that can indicate a spatial relationship between a trajector (figure) and landmark (ground). These include the above-across schema, the above schema, and the cover schema. When the cover schema is salient, the trajector is an object whose two-dimensional extent covers the landmark (extends to the edges or beyond the landmark). Usually, the trajector is construed as being vertically above, and in contact with, the landmark (e.g. “the table cloth is over the table”).
Like the abstract expressionists, graffiti artists rely on the cognitive schema, such as the “over” schema to communicate with their audience. When the viewer perceives graffiti, the “over” schema is activated. The viewer conceives the graffiti as the trajector and the public surface as the landmark. The viewer will understand that the grafitti is covering the wall. Based on his/her knowledge and experience, he may interpret the graffiti as beautiful art hiding the austerity of the urban environment or as ugly vandalism defacing the loveliness of the urban environment. Cognitive schema structure our thinking, but do not define our thoughts. Abstract reasoning depends on an individual’s knowledge base.
Princess Hijab’s oeuvre also activates the “over” schema; however, in a more complex manner. The viewer perceives the graffiti as a trajector and the billboard as the landmark; however he/she also perceives the hijab as the trajector and the body (more specifically, the flesh) as the landmark. Once the “over” schema is activated and the viewer begins to engage in abstract reasoning, he/she may wonder if it is the graffiti which covers the flesh or the hijab which covers the billboard. It is the complex reaction that PH’s art incites which makes it so powerful and ultimately makes HER so powerful. By manipulating our perception, she can manipulate our cognition. We are forced to acknowledge that the advertisement is not the models it represents nor is PH’s sketch/paint the hijab it represents. Reality becomes illusory.
So with that, I leave you with one more question to stir some more abstract thought. If I am “covering” Princess Hijab’s story in this blog post, have I affected your reasoning?