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The Veil by Elke Silvia Krystufek

ELKE SILVIA KRYSTUFEK IS AN AUSTRIAN ARTIST RENOWNED IN THE WHOLE WORLD AND WORKS WITH VARIOUS MEDIA, INCLUDING PAINTING, DRAWING, INSTALLATION ART, PHOTOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE ART, AND JEWELLERY DESIGN. HER WORK MOSTLY TACKLES THEMES REVOLVING AROUND FEMINISM, THE REPRESENTATION OF FEMALE BODIES, THE CONCEALMENT OF WOMEN, THE STANCE OF WOMEN IN WESTERN TRADITION AND THE INTERPRETATION OF THE FEMALE ROLE IN WORLD RELIGIONS.

Elke Sil­via Krystufek

One of the the­mes Kry­stu­fek deals with is the veil and women, a topic which has beco­me more cur­rent than ever. She depicts vei­led women from dif­fe­rent socie­ties and reli­gi­ons in her drawings, instal­la­ti­ons, and acry­lic pain­tings. They see them­sel­ves as femi­nists who cement and incre­a­se their worth as women by wea­ring the veil. Howe­ver, they also give the impres­si­on of being repres­sed women, an unac­cep­ta­ble ele­ment in the eyes of our modern wes­tern socie­ty. Kry­stu­fek sways bet­ween the Chris­ti­an veil in a repre­sen­ta­ti­on of the Vir­gin Mary, and an Ortho­dox Jew with a shaved head and a wig, and never gives us a hint as to which inter­pre­ta­ti­on should be used.

She shows us how in dif­fe­rent cul­tures the veil can have even simi­lar mea­nings. Is it a cry against the vio­la­ti­on of equal oppor­tu­nities for women, or the shock of being speech­less befo­re the ‘other­ness’ of Mus­lim women, so much so we fail to under­stand them? ‘Other coun­tries ‑other tra­di­ti­ons’ is a say­ing which modern socie­ties use as a crut­ch to reco­gni­se the­se dif­fe­ren­ces in tra­di­ti­ons, but at the same time it stops them from accep­t­ing them. The con­stant ques­ti­on of whe­ther wea­ring a veil should and can be accep­ted in our wes-tern world has been on the lips of inter­na­tio­nal poli­ti­cal and cul­tu­ral pundits.

In 3 BC, women in Meso­po­ta­mia alrea­dy wore veils. Wives wore them as a sign of respect and respec­ta­bi­li­ty, so as to not be bothe­red by other men. The hig­her clas­ses dis­tin­guis­hed them­sel­ves from the lower clas­ses using the veil, worn by ‘aristo­cra­tic’ women who proud­ly cove­r­ed their head. Even in the Old Tes­ta­ment, a veil was a sym­bol of respec­ta­bi­li­ty, as seen in the mee­ting bet­ween Isaac during the mee­ting of Isaac and Rebe­kah. The impo­si­ti­on of wea­ring a veil, a par­ti­al duty for women, only came about during the Cali­pha­te in the 9th cen­tu­ry. We find count­less examp­les of peop­le wea­ring a headscarf in Chris­tia­ni­ty such as in the Roman-Catho­lic church, at Papal mee­tings, in the Rus­si­an and Greek Ortho­dox Church, in monas­te­ries worn by nuns and mon­ks, and by widows who wore mour­ning veils during buri­al cere­mo­nies. The ico­no­gra­phy of the veil in Chris­ti­an histo­ry of art or women covering their heads is a con­stant the­me in pain­tings from the Midd­le Ages to the 19th cen­tu­ry, regar­ded as a sym­bol faith and mora­li­ty, worn by the Vir­gin Mary and Mary Mag­da­le­ne ali­ke, and also found in the fema­le por­traits from Titi­an to Rembrandt.

Krystufek’s instal­la­ti­on is a gol­den pen­dant pla­ced on a wall. A source of light shi­nes on it and crea­tes shadows on the wall, name­ly the Ara­bic let­ters forming the word ‘Elha­e­ra­ka Ensai­aa’, mea­ning ‘Femi­nist move­ment’. The object is the­re­fo­re open to inter­pre­ta­ti­on. Gold, the most beau­ti­ful metal, is used to crea­te fema­le jewel­lery and to high­light the wearer’s beau­ty; it’s a luxu­rious metal and is a uni­que object and pie­ce of jewel­lery, high­ligh­t­ing the idea of a femi­nist move­ment in gol­den let­ters, thus beco­m­ing its pre­fer­red inter­pre­ta­ti­on as it crea­tes a con­nec­tion bet­ween the modern femi­nist move­ment of the 20th cen­tu­ry and the Ara­bic world. Is this meant as a sign of chan­ge, to be inter­pre­ted as Mus­lim women should rein­ter­pret their rights as con­vey­ed by the wes­tern femi­nist move­ment, or are the gold let­ters just the oppo­si­te of emancipation?

In ano­t­her instal­la­ti­on, a dis­play case is fil­led with objects, inclu­ding the ‘Elha­e­ra­ka Ensai­aa’ gold pie­ce, sta­ged at jewel­lery shop Köchert in Vien­na, Kry­stu­fek refers to pie­ces of jewel­lery and their pos­si­ble con­tem­pora­ry con­ce­alm­ent. The lar­ge but­ter­fly made of pre­cious stones is pla­ced abo­ve the modern woman por­trait. It’s colos­sal when com­pa­red to the face of the woman. Does the but­ter­fly stop her from spea­king by covering her mouth? Is the beau­ty of this woman untouch­a­ble and distant, is she paid with jewels and are the view­ers pushed away from the por­trait, or does the pie­ce of jewel­lery enhan­ce the refi­ned fea­tures of her face, gui­ding our atten­ti­on to the pain­sta­kin­gly detail­ed, hand­ma­de item? After all, isn’t the but­ter­fly also the sym­bol par excel­lence of the fema­le organ, and its aim may very well be that of sedu­cing us? This object, as well as the work of the drawn medal on the face of ano­t­her woman, does inde­ed cover her, but does not veil or mask her. The woman can now be con­nec­ted to the jewel she wears, thus enhan­cing her elegance.

The fea­si­ble and pen­si­ve mea­ning of using gold is inter­pre­ted in the fol­lowing way by artist Elke Sil­via Kry­stu­fek: ‘Why gold? It is small, it is prac­ti­cal, the trans­port cos­ts are low, nobo­dy gets struck like by Ser­ra and nobo­dy gets thrown out the win­dow like by And­re, and its value is easier to mea­su­re than that of a pain­ting; after all, who knows what an image is worth?

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She lived in New York and Los Angeles from 1988 to 2003, where she was curator at the Eli Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica, one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the USA. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Steffen initiated, among other things, the Hugo Boss Art Sponsorship Prize. She founded the International Director's Council (IDC), which, together with a group of international art collectors, financed the purchase of contemporary art. Steffen curated the following exhibitions in Europe: "Francis Bacon und die Bildtradition", Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; "Visions of America", Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg; "Vienna 1900 - Klimt, Schiele und ihre Zeit", Fondation Beyeler, Basel; "Gerhard Richter - Aquarelle und Zeichnungen", Albertina, Vienna.

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