The Cover-Up Series
“A man in a uniform…or a man in a robe, for they are the same things, is not a man but a cipher, but a function, but a walking idea; his clothes walk and speak for him. And under cover, who knows who he is or what he does.”
A.S. Bayatt in “Babel Tower”
On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the world changed overnight. Fear became overwhelming as governments searched for the people who perpetrated these, and other, acts of terrorism. But what did a terrorist look like? Visible minorities were harassed. If your name sounded Arabic or Islamic, you were an immediate suspect. People became faceless stereotypes. Your neighbour could be your enemy. Racial profiling was the phrase of the day.
These occurrences led me to investigate how we look at people and how we make judgments about their character from how they appear, from their skin colour and clothing.
The “Cover-Up Series” of tapestries became a series of 9 portraits in which the faces of the people depicted are obscured by their costume. In the absence of facial expression to reveal character, we search for other clues to personality and revert to stereotypes to assign identity. While they are staring straight out of the tapestry at us, a sense of tension arises as we strive to make eye contact but cannot. As babies we learn to read facial expressions before we learn to talk. It is a matter of survival. Who are these people as individuals? What kind of people are they? Mothers, fathers, friends, terrorists?
To further confuse matters and confound easy conclusions, I have purposely made the body language of the figures belie the normal interpretation we put on their costumes. I want to increase our level of discomfort. I want the answer not to be easy.
A Canadian Klansman, the personification of the “banality of evil,” presents as an innocuous elfin businessman complete with paunchy belly and old school tie, while behind him the world is on fire. His hood even has a tassel; the eyeholes are the shape of the eyes of baby seals. And yet the Ku Klux Klan spread terror among those they considered not to be racially or religiously pure – anyone who was not a white Protestant American. They also operated in Canada, though these days Canadians find it hard to believe. Here they were against Catholics and Jews, and eastern European immigrants such as Ukrainians and Poles (and even Lithuanians)
A downtrodden Afghani Woman whose chador covers her hands as well as her body and head, making her even more powerless than her society mandates, stares out at us through a lattice prison in a strong, almost intimidating manner. Though we cannot see her eyes, we are moved to lower our own. Who is this woman?
Three French Foreign Legionnaires are clad in rubberized biochemical warfare suits, uniforms to provide protection in dangerous times. They intimidate with their unearthly appearance even as they strike fashion-model poses. Who are they when not being soldiers?
A Surgeon stands looking down at us in the operating room. The light behind him is a halo, reinforcing the idea of doctor as ministering angel. Yet he is fearsome too, with his strong muscular arms and condescending demeanor. He holds our life in his hands. Who is he?
A Bride appears in wedding dress and veils. Her face can be seen but it is a mask of the joy she is expected to feel on her wedding day. Her dark red nails and blood red roses hint that all may not be well. She stands in an aggressive pose. Is she really happy?
A New Guinea Mudman, a shaman in a clay head piece, sits waiting for his turn to perform. He seems bored with his role as mediator to the gods, yet he himself is venerated by his tribe. What is he thinking?
A Bedouin Woman stands under palm trees, staring at us in a challenging pose. Only her eyes peek through her elaborate head covering of handwoven cloth, embroidery, and dowry coins. Her society may relegate her to a low status yet she is proud and strong.
A School Crossing Guard stands surrounded by symbols of a safety provided by government and by rules – a fire hydrant, a “children crossing” traffic sign, a zebra crosswalk. The crossing guard is there to stop traffic and safely guide the schoolchildren across the street. Why is he dressed in a biohazard suit with face mask. Who is he really? What is his function?
Two women in red saris, Eritrean Refugees, stride past us through a barren desert. They live in abject poverty in tents provided by the United Nations. Their lives are filled with trying to survive another day amid the brutality of such camps, yet their clothing is beautiful and their bearing is regal. What do they think of us?
If the stereotypes are not true, who are these people? In dangerous times and in safe times alike, can we afford to “judge a book by its cover”? Genetically programmed to make split second decisions as to whether an individual is friend or foe, I hope the viewers’ thwarted assumptions lead them to take a few more seconds to question their reactions. I want to make people stop for a moment and open a dialogue with these individuals. I fear for our world where governments make war on civilians and neighbours commit genocide on neighbours. None of us are innocent. I have only questions…