Performing Shades of Green
“Performing Shades of Green” features visibly Muslim women artists activating materials evoking the interface—namely the green screen and (spiritual) window screen—remediating their experiences through performance. Featured artists include: Sara Gulamali, Maria Mahfooz, Farah Al Qasimi, Faisa Omer, Hanifa Haris, Raheleh (Minoosh) Zomorodinia, Leila Fatemi, Habiba El-Sayed and Nemah Hassan (Nemahsis).
These fabrics are given meaning beyond themselves, acting as shades of green—as portals. For Gulamali, Mahfooz, and Al Qasimi, the hijab is an identity that transforms one’s body; just as the green screen transforms a surface into a space when projected onto.1 Although not green in colour, the materials donned in the works of Omer and Haris transport the subject to another reality. With the camera as their only witness and locations undisclosed, Zomorodinia and Fatemi move off the grid and subvert the viewer’s gaze through their own lens and gestures. While remaining seated, El-Sayed and Nemahsis allow the crumbling and covered furniture from which they perform to engage with their respective viewers on their own behalf.
Keywords: Green screen; hijab; performance; new media art; contemporary Islamic art
The Green Screen as Portal
Multidisciplinary artist Umber Majeed offers that “[The] green screen interface is used as a narrative tool, projection space, and mode of spirituality.”2 As a visual language, the postnet green screen has the potential to speak back to the stereotypes featured artists similarly fall subject to when wearing the hijab (veil). The green screen thus becomes a site for performing obfuscation; a place where desires for openness are at odds with the backdrop of 9.11.01 against which these artists have been subject to for most of their lives.3
Sara Gulamali’s performance and video works The Green Walk (see Figure 1) and Can you see me still? (see Figure 2) serve as a great entry point into understanding green screen technology as a metaphor for the invisible yet hypervisible day-to-day experiences of the visibly-Muslim woman. The notion of ‘otherness’ here is a “nomadic space that can become anything or transport you anywhere.”4 For Gulamali, the green screen is not a tool, but a material she performs in to connect the omnipresent screen with the semantically complex material practice of the hijab.5
Through digital devices users extend themselves to (re)connect with the virtual, infinite space. Similarly, Gulamali uses the green screen to represent the infinite experiences of the in-between. In donning the green screen similar to a full-length veil when performing, the artist does not enclose the infinite-ness of her identity within the physical knots that make up the fabric itself, or their digital pixel counterparts when chroma keying. In fact, Gulamali uses the green screen as an interface for infinity: by superimposing the material (fabric) onto the virtual (experiences), the artist uses the screen (loom and computer) as a window to demystifying distance and translating diasporic imagery.
Another artist who uses a similar approach to interrogate ideas of representation and constructions of the self, is Maria Mahfooz. Mahfooz’s narrative form, through character animation and chroma keying [green screen], shows herself––a Pakistani-British Muslim woman––as she goes about her everyday life. In Pa-ki-stani Girls, a collaboration with Sara Gulamali, both artists display material aspects of the burkini, relying on digital means to create their own narratives, and the realm of the internet to circulate them (see Figures 3–4).6
Mahfooz’s navigation as a third culture kid––both URL and IRL––is marked by her sense of humour. The artist uses green screen technology as a playground for mutual connection by way of absurdity, the uncanny, and satire. In her work, feminism and humour go hand-in-hand: criticism is essential to both, and although they are firm, they are fluid, and their presence doesn’t negate the subject: Mahfooz, herself.7 In this way, the artist does not flatten her experiences nor does she create a gap she cannot fill. In fact, she successfully navigates the blurry boundaries between relatable and non-relatable; acceptable and unacceptable, and popular and unpopular.8 In other words, she uses humour to facilitate a connection between herself and her audience, while allowing a gateway into social criticism.
Also using the uncanny to explore the invisible is Emirati-American photographer, Farah Al Qasimi. Through performance, photography and video, the artist offers a complex approach to portraiture wherein visibility doesn’t necessarily guarantee direct access to her subject. In her series It’s Not Easy Being Seen, Al Qasimi explores the invisible labour performed by women in the cycle of creation and consumption (see Figures 5–7). The photographer prompts critical reflection by way of mutual connection between her subjects and her viewers: Masked physically with anonymity (i.e., green gloves and face coverings), the former embodies otherness by asking what feelings are evoked in the latter [to be individuals from marginalised communities] especially when navigating spaces that aren’t always designed with them in mind.
Playing with Light: Transporting Subjects to Another Reality
Reclamation through Projection and Compassion
This same visible tangibility is offered by second-generation Somali-Canadian photographer Faisa Omer in her Reclaiming Public Space portrait series for the CBC; wherein she projects images of public spaces in Edmonton directly onto the subjects [Somali-Canadian girls and women] from whom these very spaces were taken away following a string of attacks in 2021.9 For Edmonton community organiser Hannan Mohamud, “the uptick in violence can be directly linked to white supremacist rhetoric spewed—or complacently ignored—by politicians,” especially when following up traumatic events with ‘it’s not so black and white.’10 On the choice of medium for Faisa Omer in relation to history and Blackness to the issue of visibility, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer writes:
“The racial logic of white supremacy means that to be Black is to never be unmarked, but to always be seen. Even in the moments where Black people are marginalized, we are not invisible, our marginalization is the consequence of our visibility. The white gaze evaluates, scrutinizes, and lusts after Blackness, marking it as the place where what it means to be human, “civilized,” intelligent, etc., is determined. And as a result, Black people, and all they do, become hypervisible.”11
Seemingly mundane places (e.g., Public transit, the parking lot of a mall, a transit hub, an intersection) are associated with feelings of fear, coupled with the politics of surveillance. What these women encounter on a daily basis is like ‘walking on eggshells’, which, in effect, proves the dérive as a privileged practice12 when living “an existence marred by the constant possibility of anti-Black, Islamophobic and gender-based violence.”13 Omer juxtaposes light (projection) and dark (Black skin), and in wearing these spaces projected onto them like a corporeal skin, her subjects reclaim their right to exist and their right to public space (see Figures 8–10).
Art is energy: A powerful encounter is energy that transfers (from the encounter’s boundary of time/place) and transforms (evoking awareness and change in self and society) while being transferred (from the work to the viewer) and transformed (from a personal experience into a social discussion). In a way, that energy is potential in translation; and a powerful encounter is often unforeseen and rooted in difficulty.14 Omer’s portrait series is a combination of process and product; interpretation and positionality in relation to the story being told. While she’s taking the photo, her subjects share their story.15 There is an exchange; a pedagogy of compassion: Omer pulls from her own personal experiences, as well as those of her Somali and hijabi subjects, to “show it can also be filled with laughter and the joys of Black Muslim sisterhood.”16
Revelation and Transformation through Reflection
The jumbo sequin fabric used by creative director and photographer, Hanifa Haris, in Mermaids Maghrib, Saath Samandar deflects through reflection: the multifacetedness of identity and ritual through the hijab is remediated with every sequin absorbing its own fragment of the surrounding environment (see Figures 11–13).
“I get my identity from you, and you get your identity from me; which means the emphasis is on the social plenitude rather than the individualistic paucity of identity.”— Mireya Folch-Serra, Geography, Diaspora and the Art of Dialogism in At the Far Edge of Words.17
The body holds the past, present and future at once: it is a virtual, sacred place. As we live to feel and tell, there is an unfolding or de-materializing where parts of ourselves reveal themselves through sound, movement, and breath. As we navigate through life, these revelations become transformations. Likewise, āyéné-kārī (mirror mosaics) do the same: while they are assembled to form beautiful patterns as a collective, each tile tells its own story, reflecting a unique fragment of the whole image. Therefore, tile by tile, the āyéné-kārī that embellishes the interiors of shrines across Central Asia provide us with a beautiful analogy for telling and hearing stories, respectively and collectively.
The title of the photographic series itself provides a rich analogy for tackling the complexity of identity: “Mermaids” evokes hybridity; as both and neither, and the transliteration of the Urdu phrasing “Saath Samandar” as opposed to offering its translation, reasserts that identity is not something to be ‘explained’ but rather ‘understood.’18 Moreover, the cyclicality of [performing] rituals is evoked in the background and title (“Maghrib”), where the day is coming to a close, only to begin again the next.
Off the Grid: Subverting the Gaze
Iranian-American interdisciplinary artist Raheleh (Minoosh) Zomorodinia, completely covered by an emergency blanket, and allowing the wind to caress her figure, engages her body and imagination in a durational performance of resistance. Through her vulnerability-bravery approach,19 this material object speaks to the veil’s function in tangibly symbolising religion in everyday life and its role in the performative process of identity formation.20 The artist stands there, unwavering. This very fabric has also acted as a ‘mediator’ among her many collaborations with other artists of different identities; cultures, genders, and so on.21 One such example is the collaborative walk series with Astrid Kaemmerling: RitualWalk (2018), CloudWalk (2018) and The Body Walk (2019).
In her Sensation series (see Figures 14–17) an emergency blanket is held up against the wind by Zomorodinia herself, rendering visible her struggles with the [invisible] wind that caresses her form.22
The tangibility through her poetic refusal offers us an insight into the hypervisible consequences of Islamophobia in North America, yet the invisible measures taken to resolve and prevent them.23
For artist Leila Fatemi, however, the personal is not political. While she tries to rid the political landscape from her sublime landscapes,24 the politics of being a second-generation Muslim-Iranian and donning a chādor (full-body-length fabric) on a dérive25 remain present in Fatemi’s The Wandering Veil series (see Figures 18–21). Through anonymity––by appearing as a white dot in these pristine landscapes evocative of the Windows XP Bliss wallpaper––Fatemi’s series unintentionally reminds us that in the current political landscape of Canada, the hyper-visible veil is more like a cluster of white pixels or a glitch, disrupting the compositional flow of socially and technologically constructed nature images, saturated and in full HD.26
Despite this analysis, Fatemi succeeds at creating a private space for the figure; free from the viewer’s gaze, inviting us to project ourselves within each landscape. By plucking the veil out of its socio-political context, and immersing it into nature, the artist offers us a glimpse into the virtual space which she enters while she wanders in her contemplative state. In this way, the materiality of the white chādor donned by Fatemi is “relevant to religious practices in its digital mediation too.”27 Thus, through this work, we are reminded that we aren’t viewers of wallpaper landscapes at all, but rather, brief visitors of the artist’s inner reality.
Distance and Difficulty: Encountering the Self and Other
In both Nemahsis and El-Sayed’s performances, the audience is let in on the encounter through what director, producer, and dramaturge Jenny Salisbury calls a “porous fourth wall”.28 From the covered furniture on which she sings in her debut single music video, Nemahsis literally holds a mirror to the viewer so that they may encounter themselves through the “otherness of knowledge” (see Figure 23).29 In other words, she provokes affects of guilt and shame in viewers who may share commonalities with the brand that ignored her request to not be their “token hijabi girl” thereby using her image without her consent, and perpetuating that same harm unto others like the singer.30 Through the camera moving out and the furniture remaining covered until the very end, we are reminded of our boundaries as outsiders, and that the distance between the performing body and the viewing body is useful (see Figure 22).31 Extending this analogy even further, the large window (also covered) behind Nemahsis may represent the ‘window of tolerance’ [emotional capacity] beyond which the singer was pushed in harmful encounters such as the one described earlier, providing the context for her debut single What if I took it off for you?
Likewise, movement and the object in Destruction of a Chaise Longue facilitate the relationship between El-Sayed herself and her audience for this durational performance (see Figures 24–25). A strong pause where her fully-covered body freezes like a statue, between poses of ridiculous odalisque paintings, accompanied by the sound of wet clay breaking and falling onto the ground, can unsettle the white male [gaze]; while inviting members of her audience to bear witness to her labouring and destruction for her own utopia.32 In pastiching the reclining nude through projection and performance, El-Sayed multiplies what is removed, pulling us in towards her.
“When the body becomes an object, you better be ready for it to take up space.”
— Habiba El-Sayed
In both cases, the screen functions as both distancing and uniting barriers: while they allow for us to connect, they also separate us from each other and even ourselves (i.e. dis-Orienting the gaze). Playing on the concept of the mashrabiya (spiritual window screen) “wherein women and families could gather and ‘see without being seen,’”33 Nemahsis and El-Sayed, thus, consider how isolation (performing alone) can animate societal or historical shifts by focusing on how we look versus what we see.
The experiences of a visibly Muslim woman in the West form a ritual that (re)define and are (re)defined by one’s own body and movements.34 Within certain contexts, performing the everyday can actually foreground the obscurity of mundane acts; rendering the body that performs them hypervisible and thus subject to [further] marginalisation.35
Featured artists in this analysis activate materials and fabrics evoking the interface to remediate their experiences through performance. The green screen is a metaphor for transforming the Islamophobic sentiments and ideologies others project onto them, and, in transporting the subject to an empowered reality; they reclaim their voices, bodies, movement and place in the world. This reclamation cannot happen without subversion, specifically in works where the artists render their locations anonymous and take their movements and the gaze into their own hands. And, sometimes, they leave that responsibility entirely up to the props in their performances to carry out this functionality for them while they perform.
2. Umber Majeed, “In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present” (Artist Statement) (Online: Artist Website, 2018), http://www.umbermajeed.com/in-the-name-of-hypersurface-of-the-present
4. Burrard Arts Foundation, “Sara Gualamali: 💚 [green heart emoji]” (Curatorial Statement) (Online: Burrard Arts Foundation, 2022), https://burrardarts.org/exhibit/sara-gulamali-green-heart-emoji/
9. Melissa Fundira, “Reclaiming public space,” CBC – Black on the Prairies, January 24, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/newsinteractives/features/reclaiming-public-space
11. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, “Where is Blackness in Islamic Art?” BlackFlash, March 31, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/blackness-in-islamic-art/
12. Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab (New York: Routledge, 2018), 95. Springgay defines the dérive as an aimless or unplanned drifting through [urban] space. Their associations or habits related to a place are disrupted, directing their attention instead to its other [psychogeographic] details.
14. Simon, A shock to thought: Curatorial judgement and the public exhibition of ‘difficult knowledge’, 432–449. Simon describes the ‘difficulty’ embedded in a work as defined by the affect (e.g. anger, horror, disgust, shame, guilt) it provokes in the viewer.
15. Timiro Mohamed, “The Art of the Hustle: How Photographer Faisa Omer is Reclaiming Beauty Standards and Breaking Barrier Through Storytelling,” BlackFlash, February 17, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/art-of-the-hustle-faisa-omer
22. Raheleh (Minoosh) Zomorodinia, “Sensation III” (Artist Statement) (Online: Vimeo, 2016), https://vimeo.com/187257814
23. Miriam Katawazi, “‘How many deaths need to happen?’: Canada has a troubling anti-Muslim hate problem,” CTV News, June 18, 2021, https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/how-many-deaths-need-to-happen-canada-has-a-troubling-anti-muslim-hate-problem-1.54 75865
24. Leila Fatemi, “The Wandering Veil” (Artist Statement) (Online: Artist Website, 2013– ), https://www.leilafatemi.com/statement-twv
26. Marjin Bril, “When I look through my browser window I can feel the fresh air” (February 25, 2022). This is contextualised in the manuscript as a metaphor for short-term approaches to problem-solving or ‘band-aid’ solutions to complex, ongoing issues. An example is diversity and inclusion in the workspace overwhelmingly understood as a quota or token. These unsustainable approaches prove that our hypervisibility will never allow for us to fully integrate within the Canadian political landscape: we are reminded that this is a gap that has not yet been filled with meaningful and productive collaboration towards problem-solving.
32. Sanaa Humayun, “Grief, Tenderness, and Kinship: The Work of Habiba El-Sayed,” BlackFlash, February 4, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/grief-tenderness-kinship
34. Kursat Ozenc, “Introducing Ritual Design: meaning, purpose, and behaviour change,” Medium, April 2, 2016, https://medium.com/ritual-design/introducing-ritual-design-meaning-purpose-and-behavior-change-44d26d484edf
Ahmed Afzal, Mujahid Osman, & Hadeth Rassol (2021, May 7). Critical Muslim Studies [panel discussion]. AAS Digital Dialogues, Online: https://www.asianstudies.org/jobs-professional-resources/aas-digital-dialogues/critical- muslim-studies-part-iv/
Burrard Arts Foundation, “Sara Gulamali: 💚 [green heart emoji]” (Curatorial Statement) (Online: Burrard Arts Foundation, 2022), https://burrardarts.org/exhibit/sara-gulamali-green-heart-emoji/
Evolvi, Giulia. The veil and its materiality: Muslim women’s digital narratives about the burkini ban. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 34, 2019: https://doi.org/10.1080/13537903.2019.1658936
Fakhrashrafi, Mitra. Leila Fatemi: Façade through the Façade. Xpace Cultural Centre.
Gray, Julia and Kontos, Pia. An Aesthetic of Relationality: Embodiment, Imagination, and the Necessity of Playing the Fool in Research-Informed Theater, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 24 (7), 2018: https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800417736331
Hassan, Jamelie; Townsend, Melanie, and Watson, Scott. Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words, Museum London; Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2009.
Kursat Ozenc, “Introducing Ritual Design: meaning, purpose, and behaviour change,” Medium, April 2, 2016, https://medium.com/ritual-design/introducing-ritual-design-meaning-purpose-and-behavi or-change-44d26d484edf
Leila Fatemi, “The Wandering Veil” (Artist Statement) (Online: Artist Website, 2013– ), https://www.leilafatemi.com/statement-twv
Marjin Bril, “When I look through my browser window I can feel the fresh air” (2022, February 25). Institute of Network Cultures [online discourse program]. CIVA new media arts festival, Online: https://networkcultures.org/goingonline/2021/02/23/when-i-look-through-my-browser- window-i-can-feel-the-fresh-air/
M.C. Baumstark and Habiba El-Sayed, “Considering Performance: In Conversation with Habiba El-Sayed,” Fusion Magazine, 4(1), 2020, https://www.clayandglass.on.ca/resources/Documents/Magazine%20Volumes/FUSION MAGAZINE2020Vol44No1FINAL%20(1).pdf
Melissa Fundira, “Reclaiming public space,” CBC – Black on the Prairies, January 24, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/newsinteractives/features/reclaiming-public-space
Miriam Katawazi, “‘How many deaths need to happen?’: Canada has a troubling anti-Muslim hate problem” (June 18, 2021). CTV News: Toronto.
Natalie Harmsen, “Premiere: Nemahsis Drops Her Impassioned First Single, “what if I took it off for you?”” (June 23, 2021). Complex Canada.
Peterson, Kristin M. “Beyond Fashion Tips and Hijab Tutorials: The Aesthetic Style of Islamic Lifestyle Videos.” Film Criticism 40 (2), 2016: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0040.203.
Raheleh (Minoosh) Zomorodinia, “Sensation III” (Artist Statement) (Online: Vimeo, 2016), https://vimeo.com/187257814
Salisbury, Jenny. Political Acts and Public Voices: Paying Time and Attention to The Public Servant. Canadian Theatre Review, Vol. 166, 2015: https://doi.org/10.3138/ctr.166.014.
Sanaa Humayun, “Grief, Tenderness, and Kinship: The Work of Habiba El-Sayed,” BlackFlash, February 4, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/grief-tenderness-kinship
Simon, Roger I. A shock to thought: Curatorial judgement and the public exhibition of ‘difficult knowledge’. Memory Studies, 4(4), 2011: https://doi.org/10.117/1750698011398170.
Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab (New York: Routledge, 2018)
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, “Where is Blackness in Islamic Art? A response to BlackFlash’s Fall/Winter issue ‘Infinities,’” BlackFlash, March 31, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/blackness-in-islamic-art/
Tarlo, Emma. “Multicultural Muslim Fashions.” In British Asian Style Fashion & Textiles / Past & Present, edited by C. Breward, R. Crill, and P. Crang. London: V&A Publications, 2010. http://www.vandashop.com/British-Asian-Style-Fashion-Textiles/dp/1851776192.
Timiro Mohamed, “The Art of the Hustle: How Photographer Faisa Omer is Reclaiming Beauty Standards and Breaking Barrier Through Storytelling,” BlackFlash, February 17, 2022, https://blackflash.ca/art-of-the-hustle-faisa-omer
Umber Majeed, “In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present” (Artist Statement) (Online: Artist Website, 2018), http://www.umbermajeed.com/in-the-name-of-hypersurface-of-the-present
Mélika Hashemi is an Artist-Researcher and Courseware Developer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Using art and emerging technologies, she finds ways to creatively renew intersectionality and empowerment beyond screens and institutional walls. Mélika is the course author of Digital Spirituality and co-author of the book, O Lone Traveller: Rehearsing Self-Advocacy at the Border. Her research engages with critical arts pedagogies and visual discourse analyses, particularly within New Media art and newer -isms put forth by South Asian, Southwest Asian and North African (SASWANA) diaspora with proximity to Islam.