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The Face Veil in Performance: An Appreciation

Discussions of the Muslim “veil” are usually limited to debates over religion and secularism. What happens when facial covering is elevated to an art?

Beyond civil-liberties battles or disputes among surplus-fabric-inclined Muslims, it’s becoming clear that the face veil has the potential to resonate further, with more complex cultural meaning, when explored through live performance.

Erykah Badu’s black-chiffon-clad performance with Lupe Fiasco at the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta, Georgia on October 11 provides only the most recent example, at once elegant and defiantly political. Badu strikes a sartorial pose universally and specifically identified with the female Muslim body while singing the chorus to Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said,” a searing denunciation of the war on terror.

Erykah Badu is by no means the first artist to test the face veil’s performative potential. In August 2010, London-based independent-film producers Naima Bouteldja and Fatima Ali mocked France’s imminent ban on face veils with several tongue-in-cheek performance videos including “Tango in Paris,” “Burqa in Paris” and “Thriller in Paris”. Here again, Bouteldja and Ali reprise the female Muslim all-in-black figure deliberately to upend viewers’ expectations with humour, dance and irresistible beats.

But what happens if the face veil switches gender? I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the much-theorized, rarely indulged and no doubt unjustly privileged female gaze when West African band Tinariwen first took the stage at the Orpheum in Vancouver, during the Cultural Olympiad in February 2010. The band’s several male guitarists wore turbans in the Touareg style, with the cloth under their chins pulled up to their noses. Among Touareg men, covering the face is a traditional rite of passage; Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s founder and front man, as well as the band’s female singers, greeted the audience with their faces (and in most cases their heads) uncovered. Once the band began playing, however, these details became so much irrelevant frippery.

Not being able to see some of the musicians’ faces had about the same effect as not being able to understand any of their lyrics, which are sung in the Saharan Tamashek language—both simply heightened our appreciation of the rollicking brilliance of their sound. By the time the guitarists’ veils slipped down to their chins a few exuberant songs into the evening, we were all on our feet, too wrapped up in the flow of drums over hypnotic bass lines to care.

Having considered the face veil outside its usual context of disputes about nationhood and belonging, as well as setting aside its specifically female association, I’m most intrigued by what we can understand about the act of covering one’s face if we leave out Muslim religious and cultural identities altogether—and, going further, if we toss aside even the swatch of fabric, in order to get at the crux of the matter: how does the private individual negotiate public space? How far may any of us carry our right to privacy into public space—even the space where we plan to draw an audience?

Radiohead provides a hauntingly lovely illustration of the paradox, in this acoustic version of the early 1990s song “Street Spirit”:

In a stark, arresting contrast with Thom Yorke’s open, heartfelt singing, Jonny Greenwood plays guitar with his face hidden, his posture hinting at a kind of creative solitude extended onto the stage. The shining dark hair (here’s my oppressively heteronormative female privilege again) becomes a fleeting, beautiful veil. But his private absorption in his work is really defended by his lowered gaze, an intense focus on the instrument he is playing. (This absorbed posture has been noticeable each time I’ve watched Radiohead live; Mr. Greenwood is not known for smiling or chatting up audiences; nor, surely, would his fans wish otherwise.)

In the realm of artistic exchange, relations based on looking become almost ideal. Between the musician and the audience, nothing is asked that is not readily given. The artist chooses how and on what terms she will appear in front of us; we accept the terms gladly, receiving a memorable experience in return for showing up. At the live concert, this negotiation—how and when will we look, or not look, at each other?—barely registers as a conscious act, yet it allows the artist to maintain a very subtle degree of solitude, even as she makes our exhilarating collective experience possible. As spectators in public space, we make real choices about the looks we give and withhold; the glances we exchange by mutual consent. Our moral agency can be as agile and responsive as the most delicate, finely tuned instrument. Innate human sentience is still light-years ahead of legal writ.

Homepage display photo by Michell Zappa.

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