Egyptian painter Ghada Amer's thread paintings look like abstract expressionism from a distance. But a closer look reveals something startling: The delicate embroidery in this artist's work outline images of women in erotic poses.
It isn't the kind of art you would expect to see from an Islamic woman. But it's one of the many surprises that dare to challenge the way we think of Islamic culture in the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' current exhibition Confluence, which runs through April 1.
The exhibition utilizes a variety of mediums, including art, film, literature and music, to explore the merging of Middle Eastern cultural traditions with current Western thought.
"This is an informational rather than controversial opportunity to learn more about the Middle East," said Kristin Poole, the center's artistic director. "Until recently, these cultures were not something Westerners knew much about."
"It's imperative that we become more knowledgeable, yet it's hard to sort out the intricacies of life in the Middle East-the way Pakistani women live differently from Egyptian women, for instance. And it raises questions, like: As we become a more global culture, what happens when traditions and cultures intersect?"
Indeed, the multidisciplinary exhibition seems to be addressing a hunger for knowledge among Idahoans in southern Idaho.
More than 300 people, many from as far away as Boise-packed Ketchum's Church of the Big Wood to hear Geraldine Brooks, author of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.
A former Middle Eastern correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, it only took Brooks a few seconds to dispense with feelings of superiority Westerners might feel about women who wear the veil of Islam. She describes feeling sorry for two women who had to lift their veils to eat during one of her first plane flights in the Middle East.
"I thought, 'Those poor women ... to have to live like that,'" recalled Brooks. "What I didn't know at the time was they were thinking exactly the same thing about me because I wasn't wearing a veil."
As democratic societies enable more and more Muslims to learn the true teachings of Islam, we will see a very different Islam emerge-provided western countries don't alienate the Muslim communities, added Brooks.
The three female artists currently on exhibit at 191 Fifth St. East in Ketchum are among the most celebrated contemporary artists in the world, according to Poole. One was even on a recent cover of Art News.
"The exhibition is compelling because it brings to the community a level of contemporary work that hasn't been seen before," said Jennifer Gately, the center's visual arts director.
Each artist comes from a different tradition in the Muslim world. Shaizia Sikander is a Pakistani artist who was trained in the art of Indian and Persian miniatures. She pioneered a revival of the miniature form, using traditional mythology and materials such as vegetable dyes, tea stains and burnished wasli papers. But she's infused them with 21st century symbols of politics and sexuality, and even such everyday icons as traffic lights and telephone poles.
Iranian born Shirin Neshat moved to the United States to study art and was barred from returning to her country for 11 years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Her trademark of haunting black and white photos question the role of Islamic women in today's world.
Neshat's Women of Allah series examines the Islamic idea of martyrdom that extends to women. It includes a self-portrait in a black veil with a gun in front of her face in a prayerful martyr pose. Written across her face is Islamic poetry, an art that is traditionally ascribed to women in Islamic culture.
Also a video artist, her dual projection film Soliloquy, features a Muslim woman who finds herself between East and West, between tradition and modern culture, in a series of images taken in age-old and modern architectural settings.
"I find it extremely powerful," said Boisean Jeni Ramey, after sitting through the 10-minute film shown on opposite walls.
The third artist, Ghada Amer, grew up in the politically charged period of Egypt that followed the Six-Day War before moving with her family to France in 1974.
During trips to Egypt, she became fascinated with the strange combination of French fashion and Islamic morality in Venus, a fashion magazine that superimposed short hair, veils and sleeves on pornographic images of western models. She conveys these erotic images on textiles, her medium of choice inspired by women's veils.
Her miniatures feature a strange juxtaposition of hearts and tanks knit together with embroidery.
Children learned a Middle Eastern dance and embroidered their names in Arabic on miniature pillows during a Family Fun Day. And many more children came toting their tom-toms and other little drums as 150 people of all ages crowded into the center for a workshop and drumming circle spotlighting Middle Eastern rhythms.
"It's the drummers who dictate the moves that the belly dancers make, not the other way around," related drum circle leader Yousif Sheronick, a Lebanese-American from Iowa and a member of New York's Ethos Percussion Group. "The dancers know how to shake their hips based on whether the drummers hit once or twice."
On March 10 and 11 teachers, clergy, civic leaders and others will have the opportunity to take part in constructing an Egyptian wall tent as they learn about the culture, religion, history, politics and geography of the Middle East.
The day workshops will be led by Audrey Shabbas with Arab World and Islamic Resources.
And on Wednesday, March 16, Sun Valley Center for the Arts will show the 2001 Cannes Film Festival award-winning film Kandahar at 7 p.m. The film follows a female journalist who returns to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to rescue her sister, who has been driven to suicide by the ever-present persecution.
The center will follow up at 7 p.m. the following Wednesday, March 23, with two films.
The first, Hollywood Harems, juxtaposes film clips from the 1920s through the 1980s to show how Technicolor fantasies have shaped derogatory assumptions about Arab, Persian, Chinese and Indian people.
The second, Afghanistan Unveiled, was filmed by the first ever team of women journalists trained in Afghanistan. It explores the effects of the Taliban's repressive rule and the U.S. military campaign through the story of Hazara women left in caves to fend for themselves.
The Confluence exhibit will run through April 1 at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, 191 Fifth St. East.
The art exhibit is free, as are the upcoming films and the Middle Eastern workshops.
Free docent tours are offered at 11 a.m. Tuesdays. The center will also be open from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 11, as part of Ketchum's monthly Gallery Walk. The walk is similar to Boise's First Thursday event.