Simple questions and complex answers
”Do you think I should move to Nørrebro?” – it was precisely this question that the Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi asked the many people she met in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighbourhood as part of her summer 2010 video installation. Huda Lutfi was invited to Denmark in connection with the ‘My World IMAGES’ world culture festival, and it was in Nørrebro (a neighbourhood known for its high proportion of immigrants and integration issues) that she resided during her three-month stay.
The answers she received to her question were just as diverse as the various people who responded – the left-wing activist, the housewife, the newly wed Muslim couple, the homeless person selling charity magazines to earn a bit of money, the young student… The picture that arises of Nørrebro through her video is an image of a neighbourhood open to all with plenty of tolerance and room for diversity.
Huda Lutfi is in no doubt what her own answer to her question would be:
“I definitely should move there”, she answers from Cairo. “There are so many different cultures living side by side there, and it was fun to see, both how they adapt to as well as contribute to Danish culture. Being Egyptian, I never felt at any time that I was a foreigner there. The ethnic Dane who lives in Nørrebro is also just as open for the neighbourhood’s cultural diversity.
Anticipation of a different reality
Openness and tolerance where not exactly what Huda Lutfi had expected to find in Nørrebro. Before arriving, she had only heard about infighting between local Nørrebro gangs and the violent episodes and ethnic tensions of the area. But looking back, she can now see that this was merely the picture the media chose to portray Nørrebro.
”I never trust the media – they have a tendency to sensationalise and focus on exaggerations of the truth. A great deal of the media coverage you see about social problems in the western world paints a negative picture of immigrants – particularly those with Arab or Muslim backgrounds. It’s part of the entire Islamphobic tendency. However, it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, and it is precisely reality that I want to portray and show through my video. In it, I want to show how those people that I film contradicting the general media portrayal and, by doing so, they adopt a political stance. What they say reveals the one-sidedness of the media”, she explains – and she is not hesitant in drawing parallels with the treatment that Denmark was given in the Arab media following the Muhammad cartoon crisis.
”I think they (the Arab media) made a massive commotion out of a very little incident”, she explains.
Positive dialogue through art
Huda Lutfi’s background is in the academic world where she has a PhD in Islamic Culture and History, but more recently, she has become involved in the visual arts. Today she works as one of Egypt’s leading modern artists dealing with the same problems that constituted the foundations of her academic research – gender, culture and identity. With her subtle cultural criticism, she uses her works to slip through the cracks of cultural stereotypes that surround us and pose questions which open up dialogue between the two cultures.
In her Nørrebro video, she does just this. By asking a simple question, she shows that the distance between two individuals is only as great as we ourselves make it to be.
“The way I look at things is that there are always more similarities between people than there are differences. If you choose to focus on the differences, then this is politically motivated. Essentially, all the people in the world share the same thoughts and worries, and cultural differences are immaterial. Through my work, I want to emphasise the similarities between people – not the differences.”
The portrayal of women
In her newest work, Huda Lutfi casts her same critical eye on the media’s portrayal of the Muslim woman. During the past two years, she has gone around her home town of Cairo with a camera and taken pictures of women going about their daily lives. Here, it is the photographs themselves that pose the question as to what we as an audience expect to see.
Huda Lutfi is tired of being confronted with images of Arab and Muslim women as ‘suppressed’ or ‘victims’ – images which she feels that western media is all too quick to replicate. “I don’t believe that it does Muslim women any good to be defined as victims. Of course, there are women who are in fact victims in certain situations, for example those women who are victims of domestic violence. But women are subject to violence throughout the world and it isn’t just a scenario that’s uniquely specific to Arab, Muslim and Middle East culture. You can’t just decide to highlight one particular issue by using the example of one particular woman saying that that is how things are for all women in the Muslim culture. This is an example of extremely bad media coverage and this sort of biased coverage can be used as a political weapon.”
Instead, Huda Lutfi chooses to show images of Muslim women who are like herself – well-educated and financially independent women who play an active role in everyday society and are represented within society on an equal footing to men. As she says about herself,”I’ve never viewed the fact that me being a woman has been any hindrance in becoming an artists or having a university career.”
Women to escape the role of the victim
Not all Egyptian women have access to the same privileged status enjoyed by the modern urban woman, and this is something that Huda Lutfi herself is keen to point out.
Egyptian working-class women and women from rural areas face a completely different set of challenges. Nevertheless, Huda Lutfi believes that it is equally important for these women not to be pigeonholed as victims either. Huda Lutfi views them as women with a great deal of personal strength and resources – women who are more than capable of working out their own ways of dealing with things. This, she feels, gives these women a great deal of influence over their own daily lives.
”In rural areas, the family unit is extremely important and women play a huge role here. Despite having limited freedom of movement within the social sphere, these women still retain a great deal of power in relation to the running of the household and the family finances. They are highly capable of working around the masculine power rhetoric. This is a far more interesting picture of these women than the portrayal of them as victims.”
She goes on to add,”After all, patriarchy is not a characteristic solely of Islam. All religions are patriarchal – including Christianity.”
Power vs. politics
Huda Lutfi expects to have completed her latest photographic project so that it will be ready to be exhibited in Cairo in the autumn of 2011. She hopes that the exhibition will act as a counter-weight to the increasingly negative portrayal in the West of Islam and Arab culture.
”The most important objective right now is to expose the politics that lie behind the growth in Islamophobia. We have to ask the question: ’Why are Islam and Muslims being used to demonise certain cultures, religions and peoples? And who is it that has most to gain from doing so?’”
Huda Lutfi herself is in no doubt that the motivation behind this is more about power than politics. ”Communism used to be the big enemy; now it’s Muslims. It’s all about fear and those in power controlling and manipulating the population using this fear. They create a universal fear towards Islam throughout a society and then they promise that they can protect the society from Islam if only everyone votes for them. The question of what they gain from it is not asked nearly enough – if it were, we’d see that what they do gain from it is power.”
Photo: Thomas Burø