New windows of perception

Museum for Art in Wood presents The Mashrabiya Project: Seeing through Space

4 minute read
Gallery view of Mashrabiya #9: several diamond and rectangular-shaped wooden lattices joined to hang as one large piece.
Hoda Tawakol’s ‘Lure #26’ can barely be discerned behind the artist’s ‘Mashrabiya #9’ in this installation view from ‘The Mashrabiya Project: Seeing through Space.’ (Photo by John Carlano, courtesy of Museum for Art in Wood.)

Museum for Art in Wood’s building in Old City sports lattice designs on its windows to celebrate The Mashrabiya Project: Seeing through Space. Inside, the two-story main gallery room, with its airy feel from large ground-floor windows, is dominated by the massive Mashrabiya #9, created with readymade trellises by Hoda Tawakol.

Seeing through Space, curated by Jennifer-Navva Milliken, executive director and chief curator of the museum, with project coordinator Ahmed Abdelazim, displays commissioned works by six contemporary women-identifying artists. Anila Quayyum Agha, Nidaa Badwan, Susan Hefuna, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Majida Khattari, and Tawakol are from Islamic countries, bringing their personal perspectives to the mashrabiya’s everyday functions.

Mashrabiyat are lattice-like wooden screens with ancient origins, placed in windows to keep buildings cool, or inside buildings to maintain boundaries between public and private life, men and women, women and visibility. They’re decorative and versatile, created from hundreds or thousands of interlocking pieces of turned wood, and Seeing through Space artists expand on the craft while offering sharp commentary on some of its uses.

Mystery, concealment, and the cost of allure

Mashrabiya #9 is shown in tandem with Tawakol’s Lure #26, a lumpy, sequined soft sculpture suspended from the ceiling. Lure #26 is frankly unattractive and doesn’t seem to fit the show’s concept. However, when viewed through the lattice of Mashrabiya #9, Lure #26 makes sense: its grotesque whole cannot be seen and glimpses of it are actually beguiling. Together, the two pieces question humankind’s compulsion to solve mysteries and ask whether concealment—of women, for example—adds allure and at what cost to the women themselves.

Two traditional mashrabiyat are displayed on either side of Lure #26, commissioned from the Mamdouh Mohamed Abdelaziz Salem Arabesque Workshop in Cairo. Visitors can walk around them; it’s interesting to see a mashrabiya’s intricate design from all sides, including an alcove where jars of water might be placed to help cool a room.

Mesmerizing and muted

Like Tawakol’s works, Khattari’s L’orientalismes revisités à Philadelphie plays with perception. A slideshow behind a mashrabiya of people wearing exquisite costumes reminiscent of Orientalism is mesmerizing and subversive. Khattari’s work mocks colonial fetishization and rejects the fantasy of a harem’s subservient occupants. The models for L’orientalismes revisités à Philadelphie stare confidently at the viewer and some of the people who posed for Khattari’s work are members of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret in Philadelphia.

Kaabi-Linke’s delicate Amina’s Tears contains nuanced layers of meaning behind its deceptively simple presentation with only seven large openings among a few wooden supports. The openings are sealed by transparent plastic that looks machine-embossed, but is painstakingly painted with clear acrylic to create a raised design. The visible patterns are actually the raised texture’s shadows on the wall behind Amina’s Tears. Like Tawakol’s Lure #26, Amina’s Tears doesn’t seem to fit in, or to be a mashrabiya, since it has no openings for air flow. The wall text explains, “In Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Amina is the pious matriarch of the al-Jawad family,” who only rarely is allowed to emerge from her home. Nevertheless, the novels’ action takes place through her eyes. Kaabi-Linke’s brilliantly subtle work conjures melancholy for Amina’s muted existence, while the artist mutes the craft and beauty of the mashrabiya itself.

Charred Gold

All of the artists play with dimensions and distort perceptions, and Quayyum Agha explodes the mashrabiya’s structure with Charred Gold. The piece consists of 125 carved wooden cubes, singed to a deep black and suspended from the ceiling in a room of their own. The walls are painted gold, throwing the burnt blocks into high relief. The beauty of Charred Gold evokes the seduction of power and resources, but as viewers approach, the consequences of greed become apparent. Each block is carved with floral designs and words in English and Urdu, including “war,” “ugly,” and “borders.” The double-edged meaning of Charred Gold could be seen as a metaphor for mashrabiyat: beautiful, useful, architectural elements that are sometimes used as tools of repression.

Close-up of Charred Gold: dozens of square wood blocks hang in formation, burned a uniform charcoal, with gold wall behind.
Anila Quayyum Agha’s ‘Charred Gold’ (detail) reveals the words ‘borders’ and ‘caste,’ highlighting the consequences of power grabs for resources. (Photo by Emily Schilling.)

A mashrabiya first

The making of mashrabiyat is a skill traditionally passed from father to son, and the knowledge is slowly dying out. One reason is the availability of air conditioning; another, that modern artisans’ children have wider career choices. The exhibition catalogue will be published this summer in English and Arabic and will document the ancient craft in addition to the show. Milliken, who edited The Mashrabiya Project: Ancient Architectures and Contemporary Ideas across the Islamic World, says it’s the first publication to study traditional and contemporary mashrabiyat.

Earlier this year, Museum for Art in Wood received a $10 million endowment from the Windgate Foundation and changed its name (previously Center for Art in Wood) to reflect its expanded mission and plans for growth. The Mashrabiya Project is the museum’s inaugural offering under the new name, supported by a project grant from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Events and programs include the exhibition and publication, a community wood-turning workshop, augmented reality experiences, and collaborative events, like performances among the artworks by Philadelphia’s Usiloquy Dance Designs on Saturday, May 6.

What, When, Where

The Mashrabiya Project: Seeing through Space. Through July 23, 2023, at Museum for Art in Wood, 141 N 3rd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 923-8000 or


Museum for Art in Wood is an ADA-compliant venue.

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