Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Juan James: "Burka Board" + "Prayer Board"
These skateboards were designed by Chilean-born New York-based artist and designer Sebastian Errazuriz in collaboration with NYC artist and musician J. Carlton Dewoody, an artistic union they have dubbed "Juan James." The provocative designs, which feature a stylized prayer mat and covered woman's face respectively, were created for a fundraiser for Skateistan, an Afghan NGO that founded the first co-ed skateboarding school in the world in Afghanistan. The exhibition and fundraising event, held on August 20th at Red Bull Space in Soho NY, included more than 50 different customized boards. While the exhibition is passed the boards themselves are available for auction on eBay and 100% of the final bids will go directly towards Skateistan’s efforts to provide skateboarding and educational opportunities to the boys and girls of Afghanistan.
Over 70 artists and designers contributed skate decks for the auction. I didn't attend the exhibition but none of the designs pictured on eBay feature overtly Islamic themes. Nevertheless, the "Juan James" designs were the ones that represented the entire exhibition online at various design blogs (like DesignBoom and Lost In A Supermarket for e.g.) There's a lot going on here that is worth talking about (and I've written about Skateistan before) but I'd like to focus on these particular designs:
I can't help but think of a female Muslim colleague who has called for an official moratorium on the use of heavily kohl-eyed women peering out from behind veils as a signifier. (Try and get through a week without seeing a version of this image somewhere, I dare you) Of course she is right, although the graphic appeal of the eye-veil combo is undeniable from a design perspective. While you can get versions of the same thing within Arabo-Islamic cultures--in some Palestinian revolutionary art, for example--it is safe to say that Burka Board is squarely within the tradition of Western/Non-Muslim depictions of Islamic women.
...But maybe arguments about the veil, which are exhausting in and of themselves, aren't really a productive way to think about this image. Since this is at once an art and design object it's appropriate to think about it not only aesthetically, but in terms of its use. Inescapably this object is defined by its relationship to a potential user, who is being invited to stand on the face of the woman pictured on its surface. Once you proceed from that realization what she is wearing and why become secondary. If we assume that the graphic represents an Afghan woman--famous in the West as victims of the misogynistic excesses of the Taliban--then the resonance of this distasteful dynamic only deepens. There is no guarantee that this deck will ever be used to skate because sometimes such "designer decks" are displayed as art objects instead. But even still, the conceptual difficulty remains: the relationship suggested by this design is "woman under your feet."
For me, if I consider the Prayer Board separately it becomes more interesting and less culturally tone-deaf. As a New Yorker I see Muslims praying throughout the day-- sometimes in dedicated prayer rooms, sometimes in hallways, sometimes tucked away in corners-- so I already have an understanding of prayer rugs as mobile. Using this motif on a skateboard doesn't seem to degrade the sacred intent of the original objects it references. (Does it? I'm curious to hear from Muslim readers on the subject). It is playful, yes--but not derogatory.
The history of Islamic art, which developed largely without representing human forms, is full of stylized decoration like those on this board. So, whether it was intentional or not, Prayer Board references the artistic tradition of the community it was designed to support through its sale. And unlike its companion Burka Board, it is free of nasty colonial associations--at least to my non-Muslim eye.
I have no specific objection to non-Muslim artists using Islamic aesthetics in their work--there are lots of examples of cultural borrowing that yields artistically interesting results. But it does make me wonder: why reference Islam at all when skateboarding is the focus of the school and the exhibition?