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Jananne Al-Ani
In Veil (1997), a slide projection installation, five figures gaze out at us, some Veiled and some not.

As time passes, figures fade away and reappear in a slow and disorientating shuffle, while this or that veil occasionally melts away to reveal the face behind it, which is later covered again as the cycle continues. The piece recalls the texts and images of late nineteenth-century visitors to North Africa and the Middle East, writers, artists and ethnographers who went in search of "the Orient" and came back with documents that were framed to uphold existing fantasies of the exotic Other-of Eastern mysticism, secrecy and sensuality. The veil, of course, featured in their more licentious imaginings; it was central to the play of concealment and revelation in the work of, among others, the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and the writer Pierre Loti.

Veil refers back to such narratives but short-circuits them through the number and orientation of the women, who return the viewer's look five times over, effectively reversing the relations of subject and object. The exposure of the women is not arranged for the secret delectation of the male viewer, as it was in Gérôme's paintings, for instance. On the contrary, their intermittent veiling and unveiling just serves to bind them together, while their unabashed outward gazes interpellate the audience, which finds itself looking at itself in the process of looking.

The piece says nothing about "the Orient", imagined or otherwise. Instead, it turns the spotlight on the viewer's motivation, on all the reasons he or she might have for looking. It hints at the confluence of willed apartness, covert power and prurience that directed the gaze of nineteenth-century visitors and continues to inform Western perspectives on the Arab world.

Outwardly simple, it is a dense and uncompromising work that examines the asymmetrical histories of former colonial and subject peoples and the role of such media as painting and photography in normalising and quietly perpetuating those asymmetries.

Still from Veil byJananne Al-Ani, 1997
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