The First Televised Bullfight, I, 2009, watercolour on paper Image Credit: Supplied

“Where Are You Now?” is a retrospective of young British artist Vanessa Hodgkinson’s work, which reflects different stages of her engagement with Islamic art and the struggle to find her identity in the context of Islamic and Western artistic traditions. The show, curated by Maisa Al Qassimi, traces her artistic journey over the last seven years, while offering a unique Western perspective on the debate about Western perceptions of traditional Islamic art and its relationship to contemporary Western art.

Hodgkinson was born in London but has always been interested in Islamic and Orientalist art. While studying for her bachelor’s in History of Art at Cambridge University, she specialised in Ottoman art and architecture. She then spent several months in Kuwait learning Arabic, before returning to London to do a masters degree in Islamic craft. Her work has been influenced by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s seminal book, “Orientalism”, where he argued that the patronising, prejudiced and stereotypical Western representations of oriental cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries were shaped by the imperialistic attitude of Europeans.

“After studying Said’s work and Orientalist art, I became very interested in the idea of art being a political tool and a way to understand yourself through the other. There are two aspects to this show: one is about contending with the abstract and relating ideas through geometry, while the other is figurative work that deals with the hypocrisy inherent in Western imagery of oriental women. Islamic art is made in the glory of God and the artist is not the centre of the work. So in my early work, I tried to lose myself and subsume my identity into the work. But I have gradually become more comfortable about being visible in the work to the point of putting myself in the place of the odalisques in my paintings and video art. At present, I am doing my masters in Fine Art, and I feel that this is a good time to look at my successes and failures and to think about what I am doing, where I am now and where I want to go from here,” Hodgkinson says.

The essence of this exhibition is conveyed by a mirror inscribed with the message “Where are you now?”. “This work is inspired by a similar piece by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum and is a homage to an artist I admire,” Hodgkinson says. Her earliest work in the show is a set of watercolour paintings on paper from 2005 titled “My Heart Became a Receptacle For Every Image”, where everyday objects such as beds and pillows are represented through Islamic geometrical patterns. “These abstractions of reality represent a significant moment when I found a balance in my work by creating paintings that are not religious but have the meditative quality of Islamic art,” Hodgkinson says.

In 2007 the artist did a short residency in Ramallah and the theme of conflict became a major element of her work. This is reflected in an installation of a wall, covered with geometric patterns running across the gallery. In another series from that period she has depicted the first televised bullfight in Spain. “Because of the cameras, the bullfighter was forced to continue despite the rain and was badly injured. I have depicted the rain with geometric patterns in shades of grey and the bullfighter with the colours of his cape,” she says. “After Ramallah I worked so intensely on the theme of conflict that I felt the need to step away from the Middle East and tried to work out my feelings by focusing on a conflict between nature and culture.”

In 2009, Hodgkinson began training in the Sufi meditation technique of whirling. She has recorded her progress in a series of paintings produced by whirling on the paper with her feet dipped in paint. “Whirling is a meditative process for elevating the human to a spiritual plane and I tried to express that visually by painting a grid alongside my footprints to show a coexistence between human and abstract elements,” she says.

In her abstract works, Hodgkinson has challenged the repetitive, infinite and non-representative nature of the geometric patterns in Islamic art. Whereas her figurative works challenge stereotypical Western views of the orient, by playing with the concept of the “odalisque”, popularised by 19th-century Orientalist painters. In a series done in 2011, the artist has covered the erotic images of odalisques in well-known Orientalist paintings with gold leaf while also creating digital representations of the women. In another set of paintings she has replaced the odalisques with images of herself. And she has taken this idea further in a series of films, where she plays the odalisque.

“Just because of where I was born, I have been placed on one side of this East-West debate. But I want to reconsider my position and create a dialogue in a contemporary context. Through the digital images I want to say that times have changed and our attitudes should change too. And presenting myself as the odalisque is a light-hearted way to highlight the fact that the models for these exotic odalisques were not Arab, Ottoman or North African beauties; they were European models dressed (or undressed) to fit the artist’s vision. They were women like me,” she says.

Her most recent work features paintings on wood depicting a grid which resembles the screen that appears on your computer or phone before an image downloads. The grid represents a state of pure potential. Whereas marks made with a hammer, and titles referring to famous hammer attacks, convey an iconoclastic message. “I have explored the potential of Islamic geometry to create a more universal digital language that breaks down barriers between East and West,” the artist says.


Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.


“Where Are You Now?” will run at Project D Gallery, Al Quoz, until February 5, 2013.