Filmed on the Islamic island of Lamu, Veiled Woman on a Beachfront looks through and beyond cultural differences to suggest shared commonality. This stance is more in keeping with today’s global world, where electronic interconnection has undermined ideas of the nation state and even of landscape. The Kenyan woman in her burqa—or bui-bui as it is known in Lamu—symbolizes what cannot be seen: not only the woman beneath but also all that is overwritten by Western media representations of the Muslim “Other.” Eshetu observes, “Images are nothing but a theatre of real life,” and he therefore stages several paradoxes in this work.
He explains, “The beach, a sexualized space of unveiled bodies in the West, becomes the neutral backdrop of a landscape deprived of signs. The nude figure common in Western art is subverted with a veil that restores an aura of mystery. The woman was neutralized in a frozen photographic pose, allowed only small spontaneous gestures. While the burqa denies the camera’s voyeurism, the grace, comportment, style, volume [of the figure inside] all point to a known or knowable individual. The person you see is revealed through the negation of the sight of them.”
In Christianity, the female form of the Mother and Virgin is creator and protector, subsuming an earlier image of Mother Earth; whereas in Islam the divine is not represented. The Veiled Woman on a Beachfront is an invisible woman, embodied and revealed by the wind blowing her black garment. Her form, mirrored and distorted in the work, is like the patterns used in Islamic art and design to suggest the sacred. Eshetu states: “This relation between the representation of a figure and the creation of an abstract pattern unites a dichotomy, which I felt was a synthesis of the dialogue between the two cultures [Arab and Western]. The use of the mirroring effect in Veiled Woman on a Beachfront mimics the Rorschach ink patterns used in psychological tests, where new meanings could be read in the abstract patterns: ‘She’ became both witch and nun, bat and butterfly, menacing alien figure and voguish model. Her black veil becomes both phallic and vaginal; it transforms her into the unsettling image of Mother Earth, a primal emblem of our fear of darkness and of the unknown that predates both Christianity and Islam. These impressions are underscored by the suspended music of Morton Feldman, a timeless composition he based on the intricate patterns of oriental rugs.”
Working from hundreds of hours of footage, Eshetu’s editing choices in Veiled Woman on a Beachfront point to his ongoing formal exploration of photography and light, ranging through stills, motion studies, the luscious linearity of cinema, and the still unfolding non-linear, digital possibilities of video. The film is digitally stripped of reds, rendered cold and bloodless, heightening the blues and whites of Islamic tiles. The stutter of the female image alludes to Edward Muybridge’s motion studies and their influence on such works as Marcel Duchamp’s fragmented Nude Descending a Staircase. At its most reduced, slivers of veil are a visual reminder of the vaguely erotic sliced canvases of Lucio Fontana, who was also the first artist to use light from a television as a medium for art, in 1952. Fontana founded Spatialism, which aimed to renew art by incorporating notions of Time and Space. Eshetu is inspired by Fontana’s challenge to artists to use current communication technologies to unite Science (as a theoretical reading of the world), Creativity (as a spiritual and subconscious element in the arts), and Technology (as a medium of transformation).
Eshetu says, “I came to identify myself with this image. Her projection was itself an image onto which to project. Out-of-place in the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where she was first exposed, she becomes the emblem of the outsider, a foreigner with no nationality.”