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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

WSRC artist presents emotion of social change through ‘Burka Fittings Across America’

Published: February 28, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Capturing the array of emotional responses witnessed when individuals across the nation were asked to don a traditional burka, artist Marie Rim presented “Burka fittings across America” to the Brandeis community at the Women’s Studies Research Center on Tuesday. Through her work, Rim seeks to pursue the question of whether “art can inspire empathy and bridge cultural divides.”

Initiating the presentation with videos depicting the reactions of participants who tried on the burka, Rim’s work as an artist is manifested not only in her physical creations, but in the social responses she observes and collects. Upon trying on the garment, participants along the street were asked to view their reflection in a mirror and share their immediate reactions. Amid exclamations of, “I’m yearning for peripheral vision” and the common sentiment, “You can’t express who you are,” one participant reflected, “Oh my God, I look like a threatening creature from Star Wars.” The overwhelming response of participants demonstrated a deeply embedded sense of unease, although some approached the experience with a sense of humor or self reflection.

As a garment often linked with connotations of female oppression, particularly in the Western world, the burka is reaped with controversy. Rim, however, explains that her original desire to engage in this project as stemmed from personal rather than political motivations. Originally, she had been pursuing work within television, film and theater industries as a costume designer and scene artist. During this time period, she recalls her emerging fascination with torsos and plaster body casts as a medium for her art.

Following an emotion-laden breakup, she obtained a second-hand wedding dress, which she proceeded to immerse in gallons of primer before sewing it to a drop cloth. Using this as a template for her work for the next year, she explains, “this was a grief-stricken body of work.”
She began incorporating movement within her work, collaborating with her dance instructor to bring the growing number of wedding gowns to life. Asserting that “art is an encounter,” she began to use the dresses as a means of facilitating connections, holding fittings directly on the street. As men and women alike stopped to try on her artistic dresses, her art coincided with debates surrounding same sex marriage and was hence described as an excellent initiative for gay rights.

Rim traces her original fascination with the burka to her experience while viewing the film “Circumstance,” depicting two female lesbian lovers in Iran. Describing her own struggles with sexuality, she recalls the desire to empathize with the women further, fueling her decision to order a burka. Intriguingly, she says her immediate reaction to wearing the burka was one of terror, although this emotion was later replaced by a sense of calamity. Capturing this transition, she reflects, “It felt so good not to feel visibly gay for a second.”

Acknowledging her personal motivations for initiating the burka project, Rim explains, “As an artist, my intention is not to put out a public service announcement, but to inspire dialogue.” Originally, she associated the burka with female oppression and subsequently felt sympathy for women who don these garments. However, she explains how these associations have become more complex, as she began sympathizing with women who willingly choose to wear the burka, yet must endure political connotations of victimization as a result. Having worked in costume design, she reveals, “I was very aware of the power of clothing, the transformative power that goes on for actors.” As she began to dabble with the notions of burka street fittings, this power became all the more apparent.

As a consequence of her work, Rim confesses she has been criticized for using the burka for her own artistic and personal reasons. After conducting her street fittings of burkas, she reached out to scholars to attempt to make sense of the perplexing array of reactions she witnessed and to explore whether the project could be expanded as an empathetic practice. The responses she received were conflicted, including a statement from a professor of African American art history and visual culture who equated the project to, “reducing other cultures to play through imitation,” blatantly stating, “I reject such projects.”

Rim’s work has been further criticized for its limited scope and potential to spread prejudices surrounding Islamic culture. Having only utilized citizens who do not wear the burka, Rim has neglected to ascertain the motivations and beliefs of women who willingly choose to wear the burka. Instigating a brief disagreement among audience members, one woman provided valuable insight, stating her reaction to a woman in a burka and a woman half naked in a bikini were no different. She described how some women might regard the burka as, “empowering, it’s a fashion statement. Who am I to judge?”

Still, issues were raised regarding the relative safety of burkas from a purely practical perspective, given the concealing nature of the garment and the lack of peripheral vision. Comparing the burka to western articles of clothing, another member interjected, saying, “to move in high heel shoes with a miniskirt is also a skill.” Inspired, other participants suggested utilizing the context of agency as a means of further elaboration for the project to attain a deeper understanding of the burka beyond its reputation as a mechanism of oppression.

Recalling a humbling experience in her life during which she abandoned her apartment in order to return home to live with her parents due to financial reasons, Rim explains, “I felt like I was broken open in such a way that I could reach out to others.” Although this desire culminated in criticism surrounding her work with burka fittings, Rim states, “you know when at your most vulnerable all you have is your authenticity and desire to reach out to other people, that’s what was behind my urgency.”