“Worlds Apart,” an exhibition of photographic works by Drew Tal opened at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery last week. The focus of the exhibition – which is also being shown in Istanbul, Turkey – is the Muslim veil.
Most of the works are, at least ostensibly, portraits of various Muslim women, some wearing the niqab (veil) and some wearing the hijab (headscarf). As controversial as the veil can be, it would be wrong to say that one is confronted by the works or the women in them. Sensual rather than shocking, the viewer becomes absorbed in the images: in the eyes of the subject; the figure enveloped in a kind of meditative darkness; the personality, elusive, hidden, and possibly half-exposed.
Sub-themes of the show include “Light from Within” and the “Veil Unveiled.” But, counterintuitively, Tal’s “unveiling” of the garment is effected by the creation of additional layers that transform the veil into a kind of texture. There is something painterly about it. Shadow and darkness absorb the black niqab, as a white background absorbs a white niqab in “Three Pearls,” highlighting the eyes of the wearer. Traditional Islamic and Indian patterns — both geometric and floral — run across the entire surface of two of the works on exhibit – “Day Dream” and “Regret” – calling the viewer to become temporarily absorbed in the intricacy of the patterns, and, yet, also, to look through them to see the figures behind them.
Tal says he does “not interpret or criticize the practice of the wearing of the veil. I am,” he says, “well aware that to many in the West that practice provokes questions such as, is it a sign of devout expression? Is it worn because of some forced religious law? Is it a symbol of religious identity? Or is it an accessory to hide behind?” Asked what the veil means to him, Tal tells me: “I find the veil to be an integral element of my subject’s identity and uniqueness. My lens is an observer, not a judge, of the practice.”
Growing up in Israel (and now living in New York), Tal was inspired early on by the different cultures and communities he saw around him. He later made extensive trips to Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia, Burma, and elsewhere.
The current exhibition is inspired in part by the photographer’s travels along the Silk Road, though he is nonetheless aware that differences, divisions and conflicts between cultures can sometimes outweigh whatever they may have in common. “Perhaps that’s why I chose the title ‘Worlds Apart’ for my recent collection of works,” he muses. “While we are all part of this singular world, somehow the oneness of this world is very fragile and easily fragmented by divisive factors such as religious beliefs, political views, social status, race, nationalism, tribalism, bigotry, sexism, etc.” Having focused in the past on Buddhism, Tal’s work is an attempt “to give voice to various ‘fragments’ of humanity.”
There is a strong spiritual and even mystical sense to Tal’s work, reflective both of his subjects and his own approach to life and photography. “Spirituality, harmony and inner-peace became essential elements in my own life,” he says, “after several in-depth trips to Asia in the late 90s. Visiting places such as Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia and Burma opened my eyes to Buddhist philosophy and the concepts of meditation, compassion and enlightenment. I try my best to live my life closer to Buddhist life philosophies where compassion, kindness and generosity are key. Naturally, over time, all of the above principles became essential elements in my art.”
As such, Worlds Apart seems entirely divorced from and alien to the polemics and politics that flare up, raging for brief periods, around the niqab. The veil is not used as a statement, but – whether as cloth, or, by extension, shadow or pattern – is almost as an anti-statement, a pause, like the silence between notes in music. The geometric and floral designs that cover two of the works (mentioned above) were intended to show “a seamless union of the human and the divine and express how the two can celebrate and complement each other’s essence.”
But, with a background in fashion and fashion photography, Tal’s work gives us a sense of divinity emerging through the ordinary world, especially through clothing and the body. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that my fashion background plays an important role in much of my art. For me, photographing fashion was always first and foremost about capturing beauty, and to this day beauty is a prime component in my work, even when the topic I elect to address is the antithesis of beauty, such as social injustice, human suffering or war. I create only what is esthetically pleasing to me and it starts with the models I carefully select to pose in front of my camera.”
Worlds Apart transcends the controversy that often surrounds the Muslim veil in the media and politics by reconnecting the onlooker to the human and, indeed, to the spiritual. Far from divisive, reaction to the exhibition, Tal says, “has been overwhelmingly positive, approving and favorable. Interestingly enough,” he adds, “the images from the show in New York are simultaneously on exhibit at the Rezan Has Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, where the majority of art collectors and art critics are Muslim. To my delight,” he says, “the reaction from both Muslim men and Muslim women has been as enthusiastic as from the ‘Western’ collectors and guests who attended my opening night here.”
Worlds Apart will run through December 14 at:
Emmanuel Fremin Gallery
547 W. 27th Street
New York, NY 10001