Beautifying the Burka

rt, from garment construction to makeup and painting, has been a lifelong passion for Lebanese-Irish Denise Maroney. Raised between New York City, Japan, and Beirut, Maroney studied Theater and Middle East Studies before working as a costume and makeup designer in NYC. Her latest project, “Visibly Veiled,” is an installation of sheer Afghan burkas that invites viewers to explore the nature of Islamic dress. Maroney sat down with NOW Extra to discuss her project in more depth.

Tell us more about how your background and experiences influenced your desire to create this project.

Denise Maroney: Growing up in Japan influenced me enormously. The Japanese have a precise, detailed and playful aesthetic that is reflected in my work. I think that my Lebanese upbringing is reflected in the interactive nature of my work, be it theatre in public spaces (with the BIM project) or installations that ask the viewer to engage with the work of art.

As a "foreigner" living in Beirut and traveling around the Middle East, I was often caught between a desire to look at covered women and the realization that the clothing worn was expressly designed to discourage looking. Over the course of a six month residency at the Textile Arts Center in NYC, I explored this tension, studying and researching the history and art of traditional and contemporary Islamic dress and experimenting with textiles, ink, and threads. A Japanese artist I admire, Ichiko Kubota, dedicated his life to creating kimonos as pieces of art...I thought that it would be interesting to experiment in a similar fashion with Islamic garments.

How did you make the burkas in your installation?

Maroney: I used silk chiffons (fluid fabrics) and silk organzas (stiff fabric) with cotton and silk thread embroidery. My research and development took place during the 6 month residency, but the actual creation of the garments took about 6 weeks, working long hours every day! I bought an Afghani burka, dissected it to copy the pattern, and created my own. I did all the embroidery by hand.

In your artist statement, you say: “As is well known, [the burka] is a garment that has been abused by the Taliban and stigmatized by the western media. Rarely is the burka observed for what it simply is: pieces of fabric sewn together.” But how can one really look at such at garment as pieces of fabric sewn together, when it clearly has an impact on a woman’s capacity to move, see and reveal herself as she pleases?

Maroney: To say that the Burka is "several pieces of fabric sewn together" is to indicate that all garments are objects. It is the way they are viewed or worn that infuses them with ideology. Not the object itself.

Your remark that: ‘the burka has a clear intention of covering or hiding the woman’ shows that my installation is provoking a reaction. You're raising questions about your perspective on the garment, and that is my intention as an artist: to instigate discussion.

I strive to create art that challenges our perspectives and our social conditioning...nothing in life is black and white. The ability to see nuance or perspective in anything will ultimately broaden one's horizons. I think the challenge here is to acknowledge displaced beauty in something that has been abused.

When you say: “abused,” what exactly are you referring to?

Throughout history, political and ideological discourse is played out in women's dress. Look at the corset in the Western world, or the tradition of breaking toes to keep women's feet small and “pretty” in China. Consider the fact that in the West, when the corset was abolished, the high heel came into play...throughout history, there are endless examples of how women's dress has been used to oppress women.

The Taliban made wearing the burka in public space a law. In doing so, they took the garment and made it part of their political agenda.

As a woman, especially with Middle eastern origins, what are your thoughts on the practice of wearing the veil? Do you support wearing the veil?

Maroney: As an artist, it is not my job to tell people what to wear. Rather, my job is to make people think about what wearing garments means and how garments function in society. I believe that a woman should wear what she wants, and that she should be allowed to do so in the context of a free society.
Your creations are sheer. Thus, you create garments that eliminate the main attribute of a burka, which is to conceal. Could one not argue that your work is more of an exploration of a design completely unrelated to what the burka really is, namely a garment with the ulterior goal of hiding the woman?

Let's consider the context of the installation. By exhibiting sheer burkas in an empty space, I raise some questions: When we look at a burka, do we see the person inside? Do we see a person with agency? Or do we simply encounter the garment itself?
This installation was created during a textile design residency. As an artist, I am interested in exploring the textile medium in unusual contexts...juxtaposition, so to speak. Sheer textiles create a tension that reflects the quote that inspired this project: “A covered woman is simultaneously present and absent, public and private” (written by Emma Tarlo in her book Visibly Muslim).

How has the audience responded to your work thus far? How do you think it would be received in Beirut? In Afghanistan?
Maroney: The audience in New York City has responded extremely positively! It's fascinating to exhibit this in NYC, where burkas and contemporary Islamic dress are not as visible or accessible as say in Europe or the Middle East. Beirut is a diverse city where people are sophisticated and love nothing more than a debate! I would be honored to have my work inspire that conversation. Whether Afghans would find my piece affirming or challenging, I can't say. My only hope is that it would create a conversation.