Can art tackle extremism?: ‘The Unbreakable Rope’ at Free Word Centre

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By Frederica Miller

‘The Unbreakable Rope’ is an exhibition that boldly sets out to explore ‘Sexuality in Islam.’ Currently on show at Free Word Centre, London, it is the first in a series of events organised by Quilliam, a foundation that aims to tackle religious extremism with art.

At the exhibition’s opening Quilliam’s founder, Maajid Nawaz, gave an impassioned speech in which he highlighted how artists challenging the status quo are often the first to be targeted by extremists. His belief that creative freedom is a force for positive social change led him to form Quilliam and provide a platform for persecuted artists from across the world to be seen and heard.

The show gets its title from Abu Nuwas’ 8th century erotic poem about homosexual love and brings together 10 international artists whose works confront the theme of sexuality in Islam from different perspectives.

The featured artists explore their relationship to Islam through a wide range of mediums, and from painting to performance art visitors are faced with a powerful dissection of contemporary faith and society. Sarah Maple is a British artist whose striking self-portraits depict her posed in her mother’s head scarf. In one she is baring a naked breast. Whilst shocking, her paintings strongly evoke a sense of the identity-crisis that women from all faiths and backgrounds experience today.

Soody Sharafi uses the traditional art of Islamic miniature painting in order to frame contemporary truths. His paintings are made to precisely mirror the structure and style of conventional miniatures, and from afar, they appear to be just that. It is only once up close that one spots the photographs of modern-day muslims cleverly concealed amongst traditional motifs. Two young girls in white headscarves play with hula hoops against a gilt backdrop.

It would be short-sighted to say that art is the answer to extremism. However exhibitions such as ‘The Unbreakable Rope’ serve to prove art’s ability to transcend media hype and offer a human face to what can often become dehumanized problems. If we are to solve the issue of extremism then surely instead of distancing ourselves, we should first recognize the complex struggles of its immediate victims.

‘The Unbreakable Rope’ is on at Free Word Centre, London until June 8th 2016