The zar cult was said to have come through to the Middle East by way of African slaves. Although initially associated with the black African slave population, zar quickly became embedded into the cultural fabric of the Middle East and North Africa. In opposition to Islamic, Christian, and Jewish sensibilities, the cult of the zar is seen as supernatural and perhaps even something of fright. Decisively, the spirit only possesses women. As if something out of a nightmare, it has been said she would randomly become possessed by the spirit, which would hex her with illness until she engaged in a cadenced ceremony—her only antidote.
According to accounts by German missionary, John Lewis Krapf, living in the Kingdom of Shoa in the 1840s, he recounts an occurrence where randomly in the evening a woman in their house suddenly began to sing and when asked why she was did so, she bemoaned that “she wished to expel the bad spirits which she imagined would inflict her with sickness.” The woman would alternatively sing, smoke tobacco, and whip her head and arms in elongated swooping motions.
Laila Shawa’s oeuvre is characterised by her mastery of saturated colours and courageous illustrative compositions. She is known for depicting issues of political importance through witty and compelling design. Born in Gaza in 1940, Shawa remains hyperaware of the roles of women in Arab societies. Living in Palestine during the Intifadas of the latter part of the 20th century, she found that women were the cornerstone of the movement - working as cheap labour by day, revolutionaries by night.
Among her most sought after series, known as Women and Magic series, she depicts the perplexing nature of gender in the Middle East. In most paintings of this series, Shawa’s women are as still as a rock - cold and blank - she carves out their silhouettes solely out of their patterned burqas. In an interview, Shawa states, “[the veil] was more of a sociopolitical phenomenon designed to control and subdue women.” As the central figure gazes straight out of the canvas to her unassuming audience, she is unabashed in her sensuous dance. These women in The Zar are more like water than stone: flowing freely in their mystical trance, unconcerned with societal woes.
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