Eyes Have It - Pt.2
More of the interview with Face of Islam photographer Jean Brenner.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
You started out as a painter. When did you start showing your photographs?
I started in 1993, when I had my first show. I [had done] a lot of landscape paintings, based on things I saw in my travels, and it was easier to take photos than sketching, which takes so long. The first [painting] show I had in the ‘60s was big figures: four – to six-foot landscapes in public buildings around here. That was a different style, which ended in 2000. I started doing a lot of traveling. The first [photo] show I did was in ‘92-’93, called the Fabric of Tradition, based on women’s work in the marketplace. Women in Guatemala were doing all the work and walking 10 steps behind their husbands. That began the use of the camera. All my work is dimensional. In 1997 I had a solo show at Museum in Monterey called Patterns of Tradition, based on women’s art in India. There were lots of photos of work women were doing, sometimes henna, sometimes diwali.
Then I went through a long period of not doing very much. My husband retired and we traveled and I continued to take pictures. In 1999 I had [a] show of photo portraits at Cabrillo College with another woman who did architectural details. Then in 2000 at Monterey Conference Center with the same woman, Peggy Downs Bascome, called Faces and Places.
Do you take photos of subjects in the U.S.?
Not in the States, just when I go places. The portraits are really done in travel. I never pay people. I never take pictures I don’t ask permission for – and I’ve been turned down. The earliest pieces in the show [are from] 1994, to show the breadth of Islam, how different it is, mixed in Africa with tribal religion, like the folk Catholicism I saw in Guatemala. The mosques in Mali have ostrich eggs on top for fertility. The women wore these big flowing boubous, dresses, and they would use the same fabric and wrap it around their head for personal expression. I traveled in the desert, camped for two weeks with the Tuarag and the Wodaabe, a branch of the Fulani people.
Why Muslim countries?
In 1938 my father was one of first people to travel from Jeddah to Riyadh to Dhahran. He traveled with three other men by caravan and he took pictures along the way. [He] had a very good eye. When my mother died in 1997, I found a book of photos of his, like a journal, well documented. My cousin was in Saudi Arabia. He thought perhaps Ramco Bank in Dhahran might like to see them.
I was only allowed to go to Saudi Arabia because of my husband. We went under sponsorship of the bank. They almost didn’t let me go. It wasn’t the first Muslim country I went to, but it began my first interest in the area. As a child I didn’t want anything to do with the Middle East because they were always offering [my father] jobs. As a child in Palo Alto it had no interest in me. After he died, I went to Yemen and that was a big deal to me. I was advised by a lot of people not to go. [My husband and I] went in spring of 2006; the bombing of the USS Cole was in 2000. There were no UK and no US tourists.
And why Yemen?
Yemen because I had read a book about it by Eric Hansen [Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea], and we traveled with him. Yemen because I was intrigued. It goes back to the 1100s and some of the [architecture], the painted houses, are made of mud. It’s a World Heritage site. We traveled with Carolyn McIntyre, who lived in Saudi and now lives in Yemen but can’t get back because it’s become very dangerous. I have total faith in her because she speaks Arabic, lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years, and knows the area. She got us into a mosque that we couldn’t get into. We went all over the country. When you go with her you see everything. It’s not like going on a cruise. We went [around Yemen] for 3 1/2 weeks, everywhere except the border of Saudi Arabia because the region is more restrictive than the Taliban. There’s been disturbances and kidnappings since 1999. We went to a gun market that’s since become a hot bed of Al Quaida. And no pictures.
Some of these places sound dangerous. Does that attract or repel you?
I like an element of danger, I have to say. I like challenges. In all these places, no matter how much there might be an element of danger, if you talk to these people one to one, they’re curious, interested, and are people just like us – that’s the point – maybe not in what we wear or how we can travel or how our lives are like.
As an older women, I have an entre that many men and younger women don’t often have. It affords me a chance to sit down and communicate with people. I always bring pictures of my family, which I share with them, and they’re very interested. Family is extremely important in the Muslim world. I have 10 grandchildren and I get a big smile [over that]. I’m a widow now and the women there understand that. I bring pictures of the Central Coast. It’s America. Everybody’s heard of America and they’re all curious, particularly younger people and older women.
I always try to learn the word for “beautiful.” “Wonderful,” actually. If you point to the landscape, and say it, it erases a lot of negativity. Its doesn’t always work with men. [I’ll point to women’s] children, grandchildren, or something they’re wearing. I make jewelry and try to take elements from where they’re from. I do soap bubbles for their kids. It’s a great icebreaker because you can do it with 10 people or with one. In places like Yemen, [many] have never seen that before. I’ve had tribal chiefs take away [the soap bottle] to blow the bubbles. I hold [the wand] out in my hand and hold it out for them to blow.
Where did you get that idea from?
I think I read it in a book about 30 years ago. It’s great. It doesn’t leave any trash. I used to take felt pens but it’s finite. I don’t give things to people unless I’ve had some kind of context. I make connections first. I never give people candy. You can give a picture and I write on back “Your friend in America.” Everywhere you go, the kids learn English in schools. Maybe they can only say “Where from?” Which they all do.
I also play hand games with the kids. They all have some version of that. I also try to get in and work with whatever the women are doing. If they’re pounding millet, I try to pound millet, too, which makes them laugh because they’re always better than you. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. If I see something at a market, I pick it up, smell it, point to my mouth if I can eat it. Maybe it’s something you put in your hair. You just have to be uninhibited, I guess.
What time periods do the photographs in the PGAC show take place?
The majority of the Middle East photos are from the past 5 years. As I began to mature, I realized it was more about making these people more human, as opposed to just showing the breadth of Islam. Before 9/11 there wasn’t a great fear of Islam.
Did 9/11 change things?
After 9/11, I really wanted to see more. I didn’t have a negative view of Islam. I’d seen Saudi Arabia and that was the trip that was really mind blowing. It’s the strictest Muslim country I’ve been in. They’re the keepers of the flame. I got it. That’s where Mecca and [burial city of Prophet Mohammed]] Medina are. That’s where the [sacred site] Kabba is. If you can make the Hajj [pilgrimage], that’s one of the tenets of Islam. We were there just after the Hajj had ended. Muslims came from all over the world. The Saudi government gives people stipends if they can’t pay to get there. They have a special airport in Jeddah, where you fly in. We couldn’t even go on the road to Mecca because we’re infidels, not Muslims. My father had told me about Mecca. He said “I could go and you couldn’t” and that tee’d me off and made me want to go. He wasn’t a Muslim. He told me about it. Amazing trip.
Which counties outside of the Middle East have you traveled in and taken pictures?
I was in Pakistan in 1996 with a women’s group: six women and a month-old baby boy, our token male. [It was organized by] a woman who lived in Berkeley. I ended up signing on for this trip. It was fascinating. As women we could see things that others couldn’t. At this point, Pakistan was trying to encourage tourism.
I became fascinated with India. I went there seven times. I went to Gudra in 1998, close to the border with Pakistan, and Rajasthan, and I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain. In China I’ve been a couple times on the Silk Road, got to the Uyghur area. They’re Muslims, in Shin-Jo province, [and have been there] longer than any of the Chinese. Their language is Turkic in origin. They look Chinese, they’re a minority, and [the government] is persecuting them the way they do the Tibetans. I wanted to go to market at Kashgar, just over the boarder from Pakistan. My travels are: you go to one place, hear about someplace else, and go there.
In the Middle East, I’ve been everywhere except Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. We came close to Bahrain, but I wanted to go to a market I read about in Lonely Planet. That was with my husband in 1999. The Saudi government was just opening up in 1999. There was no tourist visa. We drove all over. The bank gave us this card in Arabic and we didn’t know what it said but at checkpoints it got us through. My visa had Arabic writing on the bottom. We didn’t know what it said until we met a guy in Petra who said it read “accompanying spouse.”
How many photographs are in your show at the P.G. Art Center?
Forty-two, in the Dyke Gallery. I’ve had landscape [painting shows] twice there. Most of the photos in the show are from Iraq and Iran, taken in the last two years. I was in Iran in fall of ‘09, Iraq last spring, in May. That’s where the women, particularly in Iran, the women wanted to talk to us. It was the start of the Green Revolution. These young women, particularly in large cities, [had] very good educations; college students spoke good English. None of us had any clue what would happen in Syria. None of us knew Bashar [al-Ashar] was a bad guy.
It’s amazing how hospitable these people are. They would invite you to their house for a meal after talking to you. I’m not threatening. I’m an older woman. That helps. I’m a grandmother; how much more benign can you get?
Tell me about the photograph called “Cairo – Veiled Teenager.”
[She’s in a] hijab, a head covering. There’s a yellow head band underneath to [hold] the hair. The whole point is to keep your hair out of sight. Hair is considered very alluring. You’ll attract the attention of unmarried men. Supposedly every girl is a virgin until she’s married.
She was standing with her fiends in a park. Very friendly. She learned English and wanted to talk. She came right up to us. This girl was the only one totally covered in black. Others had pink, yellow, young girl colors, and their faces weren’t veiled. I focused on her. She ended up pulling up her veil for me, which I never would have asked in a million years, and she was about 12 years old. I was astonished. It was very brief. I couldn’t say to her “Why are you veiled?”
I’ve never found out when is a specific time to wear the veil. I’ve talked to girls who started wearing the hijab at age seven. It’s showing your devotion, your parents encouraging you. The Koran says that a women should dress modestly. It says nothing about covering your face. In Iran [the hijab] is called a nekab, and it’s illegal to wear a veil. The revolution has kept that. It’s illegal for women to wear the face veil but you have to cover your hair. This young girl, it was very surprising to me that she would show her face. I took it as a great complement. I wanted to know why she was covered and her friends weren’t, why she raised it for me. I’ve never had that experience anywhere else. She was younger than I thought she was going to be. She has sort of a sad expression on her face. Maybe because somebody had died. We had small talk. She’s learning English. They were extremely interested in California. Half the places you go they say “Schwarrzenneger.” I think I gave her a picture of the Central Coast.
How about “Iran – Village Woman”
That was the older woman. Very interesting. We were first in Tehran, a large city, the capital, after the elections where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won but was contested, and that’s what started the Green Movement. Everywhere we went, all these students hated him, hated being a pariah nation, and wanted to be part of the West. Everyone had cell phones. But in the village, on a dirt street, this old woman was sitting out in front of her house. She smiled at me and I asked if I can take her picture and she said yes. Across from her was a wall with a picture of Ahmadinejad, and that village was his base. There, all the women are covered up. In Iran we practically never heard the call to prayer. And it’s an Islamic republic. It’s such a secular place. In the towns they sometimes wear Gucci scarves as far back as they can. They’re pushing it as far as they can. Look at the photo “Iran – Girl in Red.”
She was pretty young. She was with a group of girls, at sort of a shrine, Friday night. [There], Friday is like our Sunday. Everybody in a good mood, a holiday weekend, families. There were four girls, they spoke good English and wanted to talk. One said “I want an American husband.” And I said “So do I but I’m not going to give you one if I find one.” They all laughed and I turned around and there she was. I smiled, she smiled. The other girls were posing galore, had big, broad smiles.
Tell me about “Iraq – Veiled Woman in White.”
She was with her family in Arbie, the capital of Northern Iraq, Kurdistan, in a little museum. She was there with her father and a younger child. She was lovely. She was probably a young girl, maybe a virgin, the one that could be in danger. She was the only veiled woman I saw in Kurdistan. The southern part of Iraq is [dangerous]. She was a Kurd. It’s the safe area. I asked the father if I can take a picture and he said yes. The mother was not veiled. They knew of California. They knew of the Central Coast and Carmel, I think. They were pretty sophisticated. They knew what I was talking about. The folk art museum had been a house, and had a collection of lovely, beautiful rugs. At the show I have a lot of this stuff written down. I have a picture of her father, which will be right next to the piece.
And “Iraq – Young Kurdish Woman in Red.”
She was in same museum, the next day, in a group of students. The Kurdish people love color, the brighter the better. If it’s black, they’ll have rhinestones going down the sleeves. Yeah, she’s covering her hair, but you sure notice her.
And “Iraq – Kurdish Bride”?
The men dance together [at weddings]. This bride never smiled. She looked absolutely angry. The groom looked much younger than she. I have a picture of the groom at the show, too. Arranged marriages are very common among the Kurds. In 1991, at end of the Gulf War, [the U.S.] encouraged the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south to rise up against Saddam Hussein. George [H.W.] Bush didn’t go into Baghdad, as you know. We liberated Kuwait in three days. Instead of going to Baghdad, he encouraged other Iraquis to revolt. Kurds in Turkey, Syria [and elsewhere] had always wanted their own country.
We went to a town that had been gassed in 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war. Halabja. [It was] one of the most moving things I’ve encountered. You go into this town and see this big monument to people who had died. Inside the museum you see dioramas of what happened. This is in the mountains. People heard planes and ran out and realized something was coming down. It was sarin and mustard gas. It killed the majority of the town, between 15 and 20 thousand. Some fled underground to their cellars and the gas sank in. There were two 10-year-old boys in back of a truck. The adults were killed and fell on the boys and the boys lived. On the third day, a photographer found the boys, and one of the two boys told the story. He’s a grown man. He introduced us to his 6-year-old son. He works in the museum as a docent.
What were Muslims in non-Middle East countries like?
[“Kenya – Young Boran Mother”] I was surprised she was a mother of a 4 – or 5-year-old. She was standing out in front of a village selling things. We bought some things from them. The little boy was clinging to her and I asked if it was her brother but it was her son. She was wearing patterned clothes, which you see all over Africa. We had been camping on a game preserve up North. We went to a crater of a volcano where they were collecting salt. There were thorn bushes, acacia, with long thorns, all around the village to keep the animals out. You pile those up and nothing comes in. The Boran people are related to the Somalis. They’re a tribal group you find in the north. She has Somali features.
[“China – Uyghur Man”] They all wear hats from what village they’re from. Kashgar is a major market town, going back to the Silk Road. The Chinese had put in these two big buildings. He was in the old Uyghur part of town, buildings mostly made of concrete block or mud. It was the end of Ramadan. There was going to be a big feast and everybody was out. They cook on the street and hand out [food] to anybody who wants it. He was in front of a place where they were making bread in a tandoori oven – a big, round flatbread. I think he wanted us to buy the bread. It was good bread, too, hot.