Student view:

Arzelia Williams: When perceptions are not reality

June 19, 2019

Arzelia Williams is an undergraduate student studying social relations and policy in James Madison College, along with arts and humanities in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. She’s spent time studying youth and popular culture in Spain and Morocco for a Freshman Seminar Abroad, the globalization of consumerism and community in Dubai and community design in Costa Rica.

I soaked in the dry air, stepped into the sand and took in all the scenery of a country that has vowed to remove “impossible” from the dictionary. When I visited the United Arab Emirates, I saw these enormous skyscraper buildings that emerged from the ruins and, having read about Dubai before going there, I expected that it would be the equivalent of backpacking in the desert with the luxury of having a nice hotel room to sleep in at night.

I quickly learned that I was wrong. This place I imagined would have people locked into political and cultural boundaries because of the government being a monarchy and religious practices strictly imposed in several of the Emirates. However, it actually provided a world of possibilities not just for the Emiratis but for people such as myself who have bought into the misconceptions that the people there, specifically women, are oppressed.

I had the opportunity to explore how art has contributed to the UAE economy and how the Emirati women, specifically the daughters and wives of the honorable Sheikhs, put forth these initiatives. Because of the media I consumed, I initially had the perception that women there were oppressed.

I had heard about the deals the president of the UAE is making. You hear about them designing architectural structures that will be bigger than the Burj Khalifa, and the advances they are making in education. What you don't hear about is what women are doing in the public sphere. I thought that by the UAE being seen as more traditional, showcasing women in some of these public roles would threaten their sense of tradition, which caused me to believe they were oppressed.

When going to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, I had the opportunity to see that there are women in government. They are occupying seats that put art and culture, family and community into perspective.

I have taken a stance on many issues since entering MSU, including the importance of art education, inclusion for people of color, prison reform and women’s empowerment. I have assisted with creating poetry and creative arts workshops for youth in a juvenile detention center in addition to men’s correctional facilities during a course in the RCAH, I have organized a panel around the issues returning citizens encounter upon re-entering their communities and I have developed a policy proposal to bring attention to the specific set of circumstances women face upon incarceration. More recently, I have begun advocating for formerly incarcerated black women.

Art can serve as a healing mechanism ranging from those who have suffered from childhood trauma to veterans suffering from PTSD and should exist in the rehabilitation process for everyone.

Through the efforts of women such as Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, founder of Tashkeel, a contemporary art and design center for artists and designers living and working in the UAE, and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, a collaboration between Middle Eastern artists who are interested in experimentation and beyond the borders, that I realized I can exercise artistic practices to create awareness and mobilize groups for change.

Both women intended for these organizations to curate conversation and offer support to other women and artists who plan to be a catalyst for change. When doing a little research before going to Dubai, I came across a quote by Sheikha Maktoum, "Being an artist has always been acceptable for women, but we were not taken seriously — as if art was only a hobby."

She sought to make the creative expertise of women visible and publicly recognized. They continued the conversation that art, not just mainstream art, contributes a unique perspective to society. The time and effort women as artists contribute is something that should be taken seriously.

I’ve studied traditional policy in James Madison College, but have come to understand that by combining my poetry and mixed media with my activism efforts, (what I come to know as artivism), I am capable of invoking new ideas on political intervention and, not only am I representing a group of marginalized voices, but I am opening and creating a platform where discourse and change making can take place. Having majors on opposite ends of the spectrum does have a point where it intersects and allows the artist to utilize this space where the “impossible” becomes possible.