Dysfunctional Objects

Artist: Jennifer Weston Date: 2019 Medium: Mixed media Dimensions framed:

This piece was commissioned for an exhibition by Northern Fringe based on the publication ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’.

This piece is based on Number 52, Harem Wall-painting Fragments (Fragments of a wall painting from Samarra, Iraq 800 – 900AD)

According to the text, these are “fragments of painted plaster taken from the Harem quarters of an Abbasid caliph in the heart of the Islamic empire of the ninth century”.  

Dysfunctional Objects

When reading the book ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, we are told that the harem slaves were ‘girl’s and boys’ of an indiscriminate age.  They were ‘highly trained to sing, dance and entertain the caliph’ and his cohorts.  What the book does not say but hints at the fact they were sex slaves, kept for the pleasure of men.   My blood boiled when I read the quote about sex slavery being something to aspire to in ancient Samarra.  This told me how horrific and dangerous life must have been for women and children outside of the court for this to be the better option. 

The beautiful yet despondent women’s faces were the last remaining fragments of evidence of their enslaved lives. Such a flimsy reminder of their paltry, insignificant existence as objects of pleasure for wealthy and powerful men. 

Their story and faces inspired my art piece entitled ‘Dysfunctional Objects’.  Their hopeless visages are hand drawn on to beach worn tiles, then wired length-ways so the melancholy expressions peer as if from behind the bars of captivity.  The mother of pearl points represents the natural beauty and grace of the women, however each piece sports a flaw or scar; the taint of patriarchy, as the innocence of these girls and boys is removed when becoming highly trained in the art of sexually pleasing men.  They are ritualistically prepared to be repeatedly molested and raped for the pleasure of the caliph and his familiars.

This object is almost a necklace, made with red quartz facetted beads, mother of pearl and fine silk fabric, all materials commonly found in the Middle East.  But it is a dysfunctional as the ends do not meet neatly together as they are stands of silk and strong thread made into whips.  Any refusal to sexually perform would have been met with violence and most likely death.  The sex slaves were moulded into entertaining, glamourous ‘dysfunctional objects’, perceived and used and objects to gratify wealthy men.  A comment that is also poignant today in the light of the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ scandal and ‘#me too’ movement.   Girls and boys are still trafficked and sold as sex slaves.  Ordinary women and children regardless of wealth and status are still subject to patriarchy and sexually predatory men.  Little has changed.


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