An intimate object : a practice-based study of the Emirati Burqa

Al Shomely, Karima Mohammed Abdelaziz (2016) An intimate object : a practice-based study of the Emirati Burqa. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This practice-based thesis focuses on the Emirati burqa or ‘mask’, a form of face covering worn by the majority of Emirati women in the United Arab Emirates until the late 1960s that reveals the eyes but does not cover the hair or body. Framed by Daniel Miller and Aida Kanafani’s theories of material culture and embodiment that focus on dress as an intimate sensory object, this practice-based thesis is the first in-depth study of the Emirati burqa that engages with the histories and materiality of the burqa as an intimate object once made and worn by Emirati women. At the core of this thesis is women’s practice: the practices of women burqa makers, the diverse female practices of burqa wearing and my practice as a woman artist from the UAE. Through experiments with traditional craft materials, inscription methods, workshop initiatives, film, photography and installation, my engagement is with performing the material culture of the female burqa as a response to its disappearing practices and its previously little recorded history. The thesis first analyses the history of the burqa face covering in the Arabian peninsula through a specific focus on the written and visual accounts of mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth-century British travellers in Arabia. It then examines and records the material craft of Emirati burqa-making based upon interviews with burqa makers and textile producers and accompanying ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the UAE and India. This includes photographic documentation of the processes involved in the production of the burqa textile, a study of burqa manufacturing brands and packaging, and an analysis of the material construction of the burqa and how it is worn in the UAE. Based on interviews in the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar and a variety of visual and textual sources, the thesis identifies the different types of Emirati burqa in relation to age, status, and regional identities. It further shows that the Emirati burqa differs from those worn in the neighbouring Gulf States of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and focuses on burqa wearing practices and associated uses of the burqa textile in the UAE. Engaging with these research findings, the culmination of the thesis is the body of art works exhibited in the 2014 London exhibition, ‘An Intimate Object’, that re-animates the burqa as a living object with its own history and new contemporary meanings. Focusing on the significance of the body and senses in knowledge production, the art practice shows the burqa has ‘a voice’ in a conversation that draws upon past traditions referencing protection and its value as a personal and precious object. The burqa speaks, its indigo residue bleeds as an active witness to its lost past. It also plays a part in rediscovery or keeping the past of this material object alive through contemporary art practice as an aesthetic and political strategy.

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