The power of art to shock, not in the trivial sense of drawing attention to an artist’s craving for notoriety, but of making us acutely and uncomfortably aware of the ambiguities and contradictions of the human condition, remains undiminished. All that is required for an artist to exert that power is imagination, talent, intelligence, and seriousness of purpose.
A photograph exhibited at the Istanbul Biennial by the Turkish artist, Burak Delier, captures the existential dilemma confronting both his own country and Europe with brilliant precision. It shows a Muslim woman, heavily veiled, with only her eyes, her eyebrows, and some of her forehead uncovered. Her eyes, however, are wide open and express surprise, shock, fear—or perhaps even disdainful amusement. Her veil, though, is not of the usual black fabric: it is made of the European flag, dark blue with its circle of yellow stars studded across her chest and round the back of her head.
Aesthetically pleasing, this image shocks because of its manifold layers of meaning, visible almost at once. To a European worried by the increasing presence of Islam on his continent, of course, the first layer would be a warning of further infiltration, even of a demographic takeover, by what he might consider an alien and retrograde way of life. It would be a warning that the refusal of political correctness to recognize deep underlying realities will lead to complete and spineless capitulation to Islam.
But the image also expresses exactly the opposite fear: that a refusal to embrace Turkey—the one Muslim country, after all, to have experimented seriously with political secularism—will drive it into the welcoming arms of the Islamists. In that case, the European flag covering the young woman’s head would represent not liberation from the veil but the precondition or provoker of its adoption.
As for Turks, what would the image mean? A secular Turk, wishing to see Ataturk’s legacy strengthened rather than weakened or abandoned, might worry that, paradoxically, accession to Europe, with all its politically correct doctrines and legal protections, would encourage the Islamists in Turkey’s midst: for they would then be able to invoke the European Union’s anti-discriminatory legal apparatus to promote their regressive wishes.
On the other hand, an Islamist Turk might see in the image a terrible warning: the woman’s expression, which could be a triumphal smirk, means that, draped in the European flag, she is about to throw off the veil once and for all, beyond any possibility of its re-adoption.
There is no final, or indubitably correct, meaning to this most startling (and graceful) of images. Its ambiguity, however, is not caused by any lack of intellect of the artist—quite the reverse: it is caused by the ambiguity of life itself. Above all, Burak Delier’s photograph reminds us that history has to be lived forwards, not backwards and with hindsight, and that the openness and uncertainty of the future is both the hope of human existence and the price we have to pay for our freedom.