GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Censorship as cross-cultural negotiation: art books for academic use in an Islamic context
Paper Proposal Text :
Forty years ago John Berger\'s script for a BBC series brought to television audiences a critical analysis of the social implications of western \'Ways of Seeing\'. Focusing on the oil painting tradition and advertisement, the author argued that these historical and contemporary elements of visual culture participated in behaviours which reinforced existing social and gender power relations. A survey of today\'s mass media around the world demonstrates the lack of practical impact had by Berger\'s arguments in favor of a reappraisal of the content and uses of images. His script nonetheless became a book which has been foundational to visual culture studies.

Surveying the library contents of the Saudi Arabian college where I was newly appointed to lecture aesthetics last spring, I happened upon one unusual copy of Ways of Seeing. The many illustrations which display nudity had been scribbled upon, in keeping with college policy. Later on in the semester I became a censor myself, altering textbooks for student use.

This presentation lies at the intersection of a visual analysis which takes as its object female nudes gathered at the Jeddah campus, and discourses on the location of power, from the perspective of a lived teaching experience. It aims to explore the function, effects and significance of this contemporary, cross-cultural instance of censorship.

A formal comparison between the original images and their partially censored versions underlines several shifts in the viewer\'s focus of attention. This demonstration is informed by foundational ideas on western representations of the female subject as sexual object (Berger 1972).

The significance of these effects is further envisioned regarding the predominance of western educational material at this Middle-Eastern institution. Of particular interest is an ensemble of orientalist paintings, which examination leads to a discussion of the location of power in the given censor-censored relation. This question is approached with references to postcolonial thought in visual culture studies (Said, Hall 2003, Mitchell and Bhabba 2005).

Significantly it is images, not text, which fall under censorship regulations at this nationally reputed institution of higher education for women. Furthermore, the degree to which images are modified is symbolical when compared with the strict enforcement of censorship elsewhere in the kingdom. The billboards of Jeddah contain few depictions of women, whose faces are routinely blurred in shop-window posters.

As a woman, as a spectator, evolving in a visual environment dictated by logics which run counter to the western female-as-object template is a stirring experience. As a teacher, as an artist, reconsidering western art history through foreign sensibilities is a rewarding challenge.

Notwithstanding wider concerns for the free access to information, results suggest the empowering and informative qualities of one instance of censorship concerning identity politics. Implications for the development of visual culture studies in the Gulf region are discussed.