Dougie Wallace caused controversy in 2015 in the Arab States for having the tenacity to turn his camera on the spectacle of consumer avarice played out by it’s citizens on the streets of Knightsbridge. In an unexpected twist a Saudi Princess invited Wallace to exhibit this series of photos, Harrodsburg, in the Red Sea port of Jeddah in March 2016. His new project Lifting the Veil is a consequence of that trip.
The proliferation of photographed images of humans, especially of the sort used in advertising in the West does not sit well in Islamist doctrine, especially Wahhabism, the extreme branch of Islam that promotes an ultraconservative form of the religion.
Dougie Wallace lifts the veil on this conflict of interests in a fascinating and daring series of photos shot covertly in Jeddah shopping malls. Wallace offers a glimpse of the strict cultural codes that govern Jeddah, considered a more liberal and cosmopolitan city than it’s neighbour Riyadh.
Women may only be seen in public as shapeless forms under black, robe-like dresses that cover everything but the face, feet and hands. A strand of hair, a jeans clad leg escaping can bring trouble from the religious police or mutaween, the semi-governmental Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.
Wallace’s images portray an eerie world of rubbed out female faces and pixelated feet. Although men and children’s faces can be shown on billboards or in store advertisements, mannequins regardless of gender are headless. A complete representation of the human body is forbidden on the off chance it may be worshipped as an idol. This logic conversely allows for with pert nippled dummies, attired in lascivious lingerie and outfits that could only be dreamed up for kinky sex to appear in abundance throughout the malls in Jeddah.
It’s impossible to get a tourist visa in this closed society where their fathers, husbands and the imam control women’s lives from cradle to grave. There are no cinemas, bars or nightclubs. For that reason Saudis spend their leisure time in malls where the restaurants have family sections and separate doors for singles.
Western companies selling in Saudi Arabia have the task of designing creative campaigns, which concur with the limits set out by the clerics. The models in the Marks & Spencer’s store have their faces erased and the girls in Zara are ghostly apparitions. Ikea billboards appear homoerotic with their solitary, bare chested men luxuriating in sumptuous white bed linen. Victoria Secrets, synonymous with their models doesn’t have a girl in sight and neither does Top Shop. Marks & Spencer recently hit the headlines when they announced their ‘modest wear Burkini’ and stress that it “covers the whole body with the exception of the face, hands and feet, without compromising on style.”
Wallace says ‘I took the decision to shoot empty shops and was careful not to include anyone in the shots. I always had my eye for the Saudi vice squad religious police and even though I had a story ready that I was a fashion blogger interested in the clothes. These religious police go around removing and covering up images deemed mildly sexually suggestive.
Islamic fashion is one of the industry's fastest growing sectors, valued to be worth more than £200 billion by 2020. High street chains make commercial decisions to happily indulge one wealthy market while demeaning women in another, shunning their responsibilities by promoting women’s bodies being imprisoned. Is there any line big business won’t cross in order to cash in? Shouldn’t they be shooting creatively to sell women’s clothes, rather than crudely photoshopping their faces and hands out?