The Mashrabiya Project: Life behind the screen


21 September 2023

Museum for Art in Wood Exterior #3 (The Mashrabiya Project Window display).

We speak with Jennifer-Navva Milliken about a project at her Museum for Art and Wood that responds to the ubiquitous lattice screen of the Islamic world.

Philadelphia’s Museum for Art and Wood was established by a group of wood-turners who sought a space to exhibit their work. The current director, Jennifer-Navva Milliken, builds on this unique vision as a platform for cultural dialogue around the critical role of work in our lived world. The Mashrabiya Project focuses on the lattice screen made of intricately assembled pieces of turned wood. In the Islamic world, it is used as a membrane between external and internal spaces, men and women. Six women from the Islamic world make work in response to this object. In doing so, they give voice to the otherwise invisible presence of women on the other side of the screen.

The Mashrabiya Project featuring works by (L to R) Susan Hefuna, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, and Majida Khattari.

Jennifer-Navva Milliken talks about this artist in the podcast:

Nidaa Badwan

Behind this Mashrabiya I brought my identity as a Palestinian woman.

Behind the Mashrabiya there are women, but also men, who sing, as from the Sham. [The Sham, or as-Sham, refers to the Arab lands west of Mecca and include Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.]

The atmosphere of the Sham.
Men and women who give themselves
permission to access their feminine side,
creativity, beauty, art, the desire for freedom.
Behind the Mashrabiya they are all the same, they sing, dance, have fun. Only back there.
There is a different world outside.

Nidaa Badwan is a multidisciplinary artist most known for her theatrical photography work, which draws from the visual characteristics of Italian Baroque painting, and its dramatic shifts between light and dark known as chiaroscuro. Raised in Gaza in a Palestinian family, Nidaa struggled to hone her inclinations for drawing and painting. Early on, she sought to use her artistic skill and fluency to help Gazan children, traumatized from military bomb attacks from the Israel Defense Forces, through programs sponsored by UNWRA and other NGOs. Eventually, she left her home to pursue her career in San Marino, where she now lives and works.

For The Mashrabiya Project, Nidaa planned to travel to Egypt in order to photograph herself among the mashrabiya in the dense urban neighborhoods of Cairo. However, she was unable to enter Egypt with a Palestinian passport. In her words, she was forced “to bring Egypt to me,” and her work process became a mimesis of the mashrabiya’s assertion of boundaries and prevention of access to spaces that are visible, but just beyond reach.

Nidaa Badwan, Born Abu Dhabi, UAE; raised Gaza; active San Marino, Love behind the Mashrabiya 1, 2022–23, Digital photograph, printed on cotton; wooden frames made by a craftsman from Urbino who collaborates with a carpenter from Treviso (Northern Italy); glass; Courtesy of the Artist

In preparing the images for Love behind the Mashrabiya, Nidaa built a mashrabiya of her own, in “a mountain country, where the sun is not [strong] and it is cold.” She intentionally designed the openings to be oversized, in order to create maximum visibility from inside and out. In it, beauty and warmth are framed by the mashrabiya, not blocked from view.

There is a girl, her hair has lengthened
waiting for a love that comes from outside
that Mashrabiya. She now doesn’t care
anymore. Now everyone can see her from
outside with those holes so large, everyone
can see the girl.

But she doesn’t care anymore. She no longer
cares to see this love behind the Mashrabiya,
she no longer cares whether it is behind
or outside the Mashrabiya.
Her hair now reaches her feet,
her femininity explodes.

Mashrabiya #9 by Hoda Tawakol

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