Hannah Habibi: Joining the dots between pop art and Islam

Hannah Habibi Hopkin 'Made You Look!!!' Hannah Habibi explores the themes of religion, gender and identity

The Wimbledon Art Studios is a complex that hosts more than 100 exhibitors. Resident artist Hannah 'Habibi' Hopkin takes a humorous look at the stereotypes surrounding Muslim women.

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Picture of Hannah Habibi Hopkin

I was regularly interrogated and asked why I was wearing the hijab”

End Quote Hannah Habibi Artist

Small but welcoming, Hannah 'Habibi' Hopkin's studio is as colourful as a Moroccan market: elaborate tapestry and striking canvases in hues of gold adorn the walls, and succulent nut and sesame treats sit on her desk, waiting to be enjoyed.

Hijab, niqab and burqa: what are the differences?

Hannah Habibi Hopkin 'I'm a lover not a fighter'
  • The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women
  • The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear
  • The burqa is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through

Born in Bristol and raised in London, the artist traces her fascination with the Arab world back to her 14th birthday: "I was given a CD of an Egyptian singer, a lady singing rather tragic and wonderful songs. It didn't really mean anything to me at that time, but as time went on I became obsessed with the songs and the culture."

'Politicised symbolism'

The evoking Egyptian music was the soundtrack of a personal journey. Ms Hopkin converted to Islam when she was 24 and wore the full hijab for several years.

The experience of being a white, blue-eyed girl wearing traditional Muslim dress in Britain, and the different ways in which people responded to it, was the spark for many of her works.

"I was regularly interrogated and asked why I was wearing the hijab," she says. When she explained that it was due to her faith, many would go on to ask her why she was a Muslim, as they were puzzled by her non-Middle Eastern appearance.

"I find that people often project stereotypes upon you when you're wearing a scarf," she explains.

"Certain items of clothing, such as hijab and abaya, have become invested with such potent politicised symbolism - the wearer's personal identity becomes secondary to her outward appearance."

Pop inspiration

According to Ms Hopkin, the media often use images of women wearing Muslim dress to illustrate stories about oppression, or as a backdrop for reports on terrorism.

These are some of the stereotypes that she is keen to challenge through the use of familiar, accessible forms of art, such as pop art and comic-like graphics.

Her love of pop art guru Roy Lichtenstein, which blossomed when she was a child, is evident in many of her paintings. Like Lichtenstein, Ms Hopkin sometimes uses speech bubbles, a device typical of cartoon strips, to convey her message playfully.

Hannah Habibi Hopkin 'If you could see her through my eyes...'

In one of the canvases, a woman looks at the viewer through her niqab, as the text above her face reads: 'If you could see her though my eyes...', a reference to the song of the same title in the musical 'Cabaret'.

The song tells of a man who is facing disapproval from his community because he has fallen in love with a Jewish woman. Ms Hopkins explains that she juxtaposed the lyrics with the image of a woman wearing a niqab because she feels there is a similar prejudice against Muslims today.

"There is also a play on words with the reference to eyes and the fact that the woman is wearing a niqab and all you can see are her eyes," she adds.

See no evil

A political undertone pervades Ms Hopkin's bold adaptation of the proverbial 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil', which was inspired by the events taking place in Egypt in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring.

Ms Hopkins recalls following the reports closely: "There was a lot of graffiti springing up that was overtly critical of the government," she says.

Hannah Habibi Hopkin 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' The colours of the painting hint at the predominant colours of Arab flags: red, white, black and green

"This piece is influenced by the visuals that I was seeing spray painted on the streets. The message is about censorship: it started off looking at the concept of state censorship, but also self-censorship, when people are too afraid or unable to speak."

Pre-Raphaelite revival
Hannah Habibi Hopkin and Zarek Rahman 'Ophelia - Hijaabi Heroine #1' Flowers were tied together with garden twine so that they would not flow away for this 21st Century Ophelia

In collaboration with photographer and friend Zarek Rahman, Ms Hopkin set out to recreate some Pre-Raphaelite works which are easily recognisable by her audience.

A detail from Proserpine by Hannah Habibi Hopkin and Zarek Rahman Unlike 'Ophelia', 'Proserpine' was shot in a studio

The first photograph of the series is a homage to the classic Ophelia by John Everett Millais. It was recreated in the same Surrey river as its Victorian counterpart, with Ms Hopkin herself modelling as Ophelia.

The other two were inspired by The Bridesmaid and Proserpine, painted respectively by Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Mr Rahman's ambition was to make the photographs look as similar to paintings as possible, to fit in with Ms Hopkin's style and with the realism of the original works.

These pictures have a 21st Century twist, featuring women who wear the burqa: "We chose to place our characters in a burqa because it's a very iconic image and it's loaded with symbolism to contemporary audiences."

A detail from The Bridesmaid by Hannah Habibi Hopkin and Zarek Rahman The artists used props hinting at the Arab world, such as a Middle Eastern rose water sprinkler and henna on the hands of the bridesmaid

As some of the stories that are presented in the media tell of female maltreatment in Arab countries, Ms Hopkins believes we can no longer separate the image of the burqa from the idea of oppression.

Ms Hopkin was also interested in the opposition between the idealistic, chaste representation of womanhood typical of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and the way in which women were treated "almost like commodities shared between the members of this Brotherhood of artists."

The artist thinks that echoes of the Victorian interpretation of womanhood are still reverberating around today:

"Women from all backgrounds are still being confronted with the 'virgin/whore' dichotomy. It doesn't matter whether you're from London or Kabul."

But Ms Hopkin is also aware of the "thriving Muslim feminist movement worldwide", which she says is supported not only by women but also many Muslim men and has created debate among the disparate subcultures of Muslim womanhood.

"I feel that if only the voices of Muslim women were presented a little more by the media, rather than simply being 'talked about', we would all benefit and become a little more understanding of one another."

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