Lili Almog lifts the veil

Keith Gallasch

The wearing of the veil, in its various manifestations in Muslim communities in Western countries, continues to be the subject of rancorous debate. New York-based, Israeli-born and internationally exhibited photographer Lili Almog offers a fresh perspective in a series of images for Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival that constitute a preview of a major exhibition to be mounted in Israel later this year. I met the artist and discussed the show and its other dimensions with her.

Almog’s concern is with the veiling of women in any number of cultures and religions. In a recent visit to Israel she encountered heavily veiled women whom she assumed to be Muslim. They were in fact conservative Israelis who are imposing the same dress code on their daughters. The difference between the women of two quite different cultures was, in effect, erased. Without identity, Almog said, the women “divided the landscape, cutting the horizon in two.” The distance between herself and a veiled woman seems profound: “What is she thinking? What am I thinking?” Hence the title of the show, The Space Within. This particular impact will be captured in the exhibition in Israel when Almog adds a series of landscape images, one of which was on show.

Almog’s focus in this exhibition for the Head On Photo Festival is on veiled bodies in a deep, almost metallic grey life drawing studio in which a mostly totally covered woman (often in black, sometimes in bright prints, eyes showing only once, finger nails painted yellow in one image and a naked leg exposed in another) poses amid sparely spaced easels, sketches, paintings and, strikingly, the stark white statue of the Venus de Milo and, in one image, her male counterpart.

Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

While the juxtaposition of covered and naked is at once amusing and disturbing, there are subtler ironies at work for the alert observer in terms of posture, the deployment of clothing and references to the history of portraiture. The texture of the photography likewise works from apparent binaries of light and dark with many shades between, yielding a satisfying painterliness which the veiled figure disrupts, like a ghost in black. Lili Almog very effectively lifts the veil on a complex gender and cultural tradition.

With a palpable sense of excitement, Almog revealed other aspects of the exhibition for Israel that she’s working on. They include a video, bumper stickers (revealing the diversity of cultural veiling) and heat sensitive ceramic statuettes—covered on one side, naked on the other as they turn—that utter telling statements as viewers draw near. With an aesthetic at once deadly serious and cheekily provocative, clearly Almog feels that the ideas embodied in her art have to reach beyond the photographic frame.

Lili Almog, The Space Within, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, 27 April-21 May

The Space Within has been brought to Sydney by Arthere for Head On Photo Festival.

Top image credit: Drawing Room #5, Lili Almog, Martin Browne Contemporary, photo courtesy the artist and Arthere

16 May 2017