Last week I returned to my former home – London – to see Radical Love: Female Lust, a celebration of over a millennium of women’s poetic reflections on love and sexuality from the Arabic region, depicted by contemporary artists from across the world. Half of the artists and photographers are from the Arab world, many well-established, but they are rarely seen in the UK either in exhibition spaces or media.
It was all displayed in The Crypt in Euston, London. It felt womb-like in its ambience, with complexity expressed in its multiple rooms and tunnels, each with a new aesthetic surprise within.
There are no real depictions of a willful heterosexual female sexuality. For DH Lawrence, who seized the imagination of many, and for Anaïs Nin (brilliant rebel and philosopher though she is and seen as the pinnacle of female erotica), it is all supplication; it is never directed out to the other.
Not so in this exhibition. The women’s voices here are assertive and strong. The physical, emotional and spiritual are fused – as is the case in the best of Sufi writing – in a celebration of enduring passion. I was reminded of the rebel lasciviousness of Amy Winehouse and the powerful defiance of M.I.A.’s Bad Girls.
It is not possible to see an exhibition like Radical Love: Female Lust without reflecting on the concepts of inclusion and diversity, stunted though they are in our culture. The idea is expressed in these global multi-faith female voices, concerned with the complications of sexuality, responding to poetry spanning over a thousand years.
While it is centred loosely on Arabic culture, there are no essentialist identities depicted in the imagery. Its very incongruity makes the voices untamed and hard to translate either into mainstream ‘politics’ or simplistic media representation.
And the fluid identities expressed in the work – of longing for freedom and self-expression – make up the real meaning of embracing diversity and difference. More than a tick box of neat little squares in which we must squeeze ourselves, these are radical expressions of a very individual creativity.
Creative production by women produces some of the most imaginative and wild outpourings because we have neither home nor comfortable identity at ease with mainstream culture. We are free to make our own, so long as we are up for it. We have a thousand years of women’s voices to take our inspiration. That is the message this exhibition conveys.