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.
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?