Eyes Have It
Face of Islam closes human and geographic gaps at Pacific Grove Art Center.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Jean Brenner has traveled across Muslim countries for nearly 20 years, each time bringing back pieces of each country, culture and people she’s encountered, both in stories and in the photographs she’s taken since 1993.
In Mali, she says, mosques have ostrich eggs perched on top, representing traditional African fertility symbols. In Islamic countries, white is the color of mourning. Muslim women’s hijab is meant to cover the hair, which is considered alluring, but young women are now testing the boundaries of its modesty. Of her travels, Iran observed one of the most lax calls to Muslim prayer, while U.S. ally Saudi Arabia was oppressively strict.
These are just a few dispatches Brenner will reveal at her latest show of photographs and captions (and a coming lecture) at the Pacific Grove Art Center, opening this Friday along with four other unrelated art exhibits. Hers is called The Face of Islam, and it’s part of a body of work that she’s built on since the 1990s, the idea for which was planted by her father – a Lawrence of Arabia-like wanderer in the desert – when she was a little girl in the 1930s.
“In 1938 my father was one of first people to travel from Jeddah to Riyadh to Dhahran,” Brenner says. “Oil was discovered [in Saudi Arabia] in 1938. He worked for Chevron. He traveled 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.”
By then Brenner’s own eye for composition was highly trained. She earned an art history degree at the Sorbonne in 1956 and painted through several career phases in subsequent decades until, on a trip to Guatemala in 1993, she put down the sketch pad and picked up a camera.
Her first show of photo portraits came in 1999 at Cabrillo College. The next in 2000 at Monterey Conference Center in a show called Faces and Places. The Monterey Museum of Art, Stanford University and Pacific Grove Art Center shows followed.
This PGAC show is made up of 42 portraits, cropped close to the face, of girls, boys, men and mostly women from Islamic traditions in 10 Middle Eastern, 5 African, and 4 Central Asian countries. Most are from Iran and Iraq in the last two years, “the start of the Green Revolution.”
“None of us [travelers] had a clue what would happen in Syria… [that] Bashar [al-Assad] was a bad guy,” she says. “We were in Tehran after the 2009 elections where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won but was contested, and that’s what started the Green Movement. Everywhere we went, students hated him, [hated] being a pariah nation, and wanted to be part of the West. In the towns they sometimes wear Gucci scarves as far back as they can. They’re pushing it as far as they can.”
Because she’s an outsider, Brenner inculcates herself into her subjects’ privacy by traveling in small groups or with knowledgeable tour guides. She breaks the ice with strangers by blowing soap bubbles, which some had never seen before. She helps women with work like grinding millet. She learns how to say the word “wonderful” or “beautiful” in each language, and points to either the landscape, or children or the subjects’ clothing. She shows pictures of her family – family is everything in many of the Islamic countries. She shows her subjects the picture and if they don’t like it, she takes another.
“I never take pictures I don’t ask permission for,” she says. “And I’ve been turned down.”
Brenner was joking with a group of teen girls in a shrine in Iran about them wanting to procure an American husband, the girls giggling and posing.
“I turned around and there she was. I smiled, she smiled.” Brenner took the enigmatic picture called “Iran – Young Girl in Red” in which a pretty girl smiles pensively at Brenner’s camera, a warmer, more conventional version of Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic photo “Afghan Girl.”
In Africa, Brenner camped out in the desert for two weeks with Tuaregs and Wodaabes (part of the Fulani ethnic group). She snapped “Kenya – Young Boran Mother” after coming down from a volcano crater where salt was harvested, outside of a village surrounded by protective acacia thorn bushes to keep animals out.
In the Middle East she’s been to Saudi Arabia, Jordan (before 1999), Egypt, Oman, the West Bank, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq. Gaza was too dangerous. In Africa, Senegal, Niger, Begnin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco. In Central Asia, Pakistan, India (seven times), China, Uzbekistan.
“I like an element of danger, I have to say. I like challenges,” Brenner says. “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, just like us. That’s the point.”
THE FACE OF ISLAM and other exhibits open 7-9pm Friday, at Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. Free. 375-2208, www.pgartcenter.org. Jean Brenner lectures on her photographs 2pm Jan. 22.