Perfume and Spices, 2019
Perfume and Spices, 2019

I am always moved by the messages entrusted to me for my paintings. But often what is more powerful than the statements themselves are the stories behind the scarves. You see, I always begin a piece by asking what the participants want to say. We usually spend several weeks discussing the message and reflecting on word choice. Is it "men", "women", or "people"? How about "propaganda" instead of "questions"? Because words matter, and I want to be a loyal steward of the message offered by the participant.

Once the message is finalized I invite the woman to contribute a scarf that drives the aesthetic of the work. On a superficial level you might see the her culture or personality reflected in the style of scarf she wears: bright and colorful with patterns, sequins, and tassels, or perhaps subdued, subtle, utilitarian even. But on a more personal level, the scarves carry bit of the woman with them:

Perfumes, sweet and floral.
Spiced fragrances, earthy and warm from meals cooked in recent days.
More often, the smell of laundry detergent.
Once or twice: a few strands of hair.

In one of the pieces, splashes of white paint decorate the corner of the fabric, memorializing a time when it was the participant's go-to scarf, worn for everything from going out for worship to painting her home. Like a favorite pair of jeans that fits just right, all Muslim women have their go-to scarf, and that was hers. She saved that scarf for 30 years -- quite literally decades -- as a memento from earlier times, and then decided to contribute it for this piece. Needless to say, I was nervous when cutting the fabric to veil the painting!

I enjoy having long conversations with the women who contribute to the series, but I haven't always asked as many questions. When I began this journey, I didn't want to overstep boundaries and pry farther than what the muse was willing to offer. I would simply thank them for their statement, and get to painting. But this limited my understanding and the depth of the work and I soon realized that I was doing everyone a disservice by not asking for more. So I began asking:

What made you choose this particular scarf?
Is it your favorite one?
Your least favorite?
Did something memorable happen while you were wearing it?

For some, the scarf was just that: a scarf. For others, it was more like baggage, carrying memories of pivotal experiences that the women wanted to share, or release.

For instance, one scarf gifted to this work was being worn at the moment a long-term relationship ended, leaving the muse brokenhearted. She had held on to the scarf for years, but finally decided it was time to let go.

A leopard print scarf is from a powerhouse activist who purchased it as she recovered from post pardum depression. Before that moment, she walked through the world timidly, unwilling to make waves and draw attention. Then one day while she was out shopping with her child, she decided she no longer wanted to live in the background. She saw this leopard print scarf -- a pattern that, in her culture, is usually reserved for ostentatious women -- picked it up, and never looked back.

A red and white Keffiyeh is a powerful symbol for the Palestinian people, reflecting a heritage in jeopardy of being lost:

Just as the style of each scarf in "Just a Peek, Please?" is distinct, so too are the stories behind them and the memories they carry. I sit in an expanding place of gratitude and love towards the women who allow me to present their stories on their behalf, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the future.