‘LIFTING THE VEIL’
There’s something surreal about visiting a shopping mall in which the women on advertising hoardings and posters have their faces, hands and feet digitally removed.
Dougie Wallace made waves in Saudi Arabia when he recently published Harrodsburg, a book of photographs showing the outrageous consumer avarice of some of the kingdom’s richest citizens as they shopped the streets of Knightsbridge in London.
Then, in an unexpected twist, Reem al Faisal, a Saudi Princess, invited Wallace to exhibit images from the book in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea city of Jeddah. While there, he discovered that there are few entertainment options in the kingdom, which has no cinemas, bars, or nightclubs. Instead, residents spend their leisure time in giant, upscale, shopping malls.
While browsing these malls, Wallace saw how major international stores struggled to combat strict religious laws that only allow women to be seen in public as shapeless forms under black burkas that cover everything but their faces, feet and hands – although there are fewer restrictions on men and children. And mannequins, both male and female, can’t have heads, in case you worship them!
In Behind the Veil, the new project developed during his Saudi journey, Wallace shows how Western corporations adapt their sales campaigns to laws that are so harsh that the sight of a strand of hair or a jeans-clad leg in an advertising poster can result in a visit from the religious police or mutaween, the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. Those marketing efforts have led to the creation of an
eerie advertising netherworld, where women in displays in Marks & Spencer stores have their faces erased, and the models in Zara are ghostly apparitions; where Ikea billboards convey homo-eroticism: solitary, bare-chested men luxuriating in sumptuous white bed linen; and neither Victoria’s Secrets nor Top Shop have a woman in sight.
“Strangely”, Wallace notes, “this same religious logic seems unmoved by the display of pert-nippled dummies, dressed in lascivious lingerie and outfits dreamed up for kinky sex that appear in abundance in the malls. No faces, no hands, no feet, so all is well . . .”
Aware of the contradictions and the heavy-handed reputation of the country’s religious police, Wallace says, “I decided to shoot empty shops with a small, fast and discrete camera, being careful not to include anyone in the images. Even so, I always expected a tap on the shoulder and then having to explain my photos of women’s undergarments. I had a story ready that I was a fashion blogger, interested only in the clothes. But I thought, ‘That will last about 10 minutes under interrogation’, and had a couple of meltdown moments when I wondered if, perhaps, it would be more sensible if I formatted my memory card.”
Reflecting on the “humiliation of women in the multinationals’ advertising”, Wallace says, “It seems to me that high street stores such as M&S and Zara are accomplices in this humiliation of women. In the West, we protest about companies that objectify and sexualise women by selling over-revealing clothes to girls. Yet, surely, a similar message is implied when females accept that they must cover up so that men can control their desires.
“Islamic fashion is one of the industry’s fastest growing sectors, expected to be worth more than £200-billion by 2020, which explains why greedy high street chains see nothing wrong in indulging women in one wealthy market, while promoting the imprisoning of women’s bodies in another. Is there any line big business won’t cross in order to cash in?”
I think he already knows the answer to that question. Cold Type