“I wear my headscarf as cultural signifier for who I am and what I believe”
Arpita Shah’s photographs portray women from the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities in Scotland, who practice the tradition of head covering or veiling. Shah highlights the significance of the Purdah – the ‘sacred cloth’ – and its deeply personal meanings to the women she collaborated with as part of the project.
Her portraits seek to address the common misconceptions around the tradition of head covering and veiling through representations of contemporary women who choose to practice this tradition.
From the Persian word ‘پرده’ meaning ‘to curtain’, the term Purdah varies in use and meanings amongst particular South Asian cultures. It can refer literally to a piece of cloth, but is also used traditionally to signify the veiling, seclusion and privacy of women.
The women in these portraits represent a variety of cloths, which they wear day to day, during worship, or at particular religious occasions. Ranging from Sikh women in dastar and dupatta, to Hindu women in their sarees, Purdah also includes Muslim women wearing the niqab, abaya, and personal variations of the hijab.
These portraits attempt to shift the focus of the Purdah from the physical to the spiritual act of drawing open and closing the sacred cloths that each sitter chooses to embody. The work seeks to enrich our understanding of the practice of Purdah, and redress common misconceptions around the tradition of head covering and veiling, through representations of contemporary women who choose to practice its tradition.
Purdah slowly unfolds the complex and intimate relationships that these women have with their sacred cloths, offering us a glimpse into its varied uses and interpretations across diverse cultural and spiritual worlds” - Arpita Shah
Purdah - The Sacred Cloth was produced as Arpita Shah’s residency on the Albert Drive Project in Glasgow, where she collaborated with Asian women from the Pollokshields community during February and July 2013. The project was commissioned by Tramway and Glas(s) Performance.
Arpita Shah (b. 1983, Ahmedabad, India) is a photographic artist and educator based in Scotland. She works between photography and film, exploring the intersections of culture and identity.
Shah spent the earlier part of her life living between India, Ireland and the Middle East before settling in the UK (in 1992). This migratory experience is reflected in her practice, which often focuses on the notion of home, belonging and shifting cultural identities.
Shah’s work tends to draw from Asian and Eastern mythology, using it both visually and conceptually to explore issues of cultural displacement in the Asian Diaspora.
Shah received her BA in Photography & Film from Napier University in Edinburgh. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Detroit Center of Contemporary Photography (2013); the Brighton Photo Biennial (2014); Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow (2014); Focus Festival in Mumbai, India (2015); Chobi Mela IX in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2017); and Travelling Gallery, Scotland (2018).
She has been commissioned by Creative Scotland, and has completed artist residencies at Street Level Photoworks and Ankur Arts, amongst others. Alongside her artist practice, Shah is also co-founder of Focàs Scotland, an initiative which supports local and international emerging photographers.
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