Eastern and western cultural values exert contradictory pulls, and those caught in the countercurrent can struggle to navigate between them. South African artist Laylaa Jacobs’ recent work Fulla explores this tension in her experience as a Muslim woman.
Fulla is a doll first introduced in the UAE as an alternative to Barbie, according to Mama Mia. She dresses and behaves in a way that is appropriate for an idealised Muslim woman: she’s a teacher or doctor, always wears modest clothing, and even comes with her own prayer mats. For Jacobs, Fulla represents only one aspect of her identity: growing up she attended a Muslim school which emphasised modesty, but the Westernised social context also encouraged her to idealise her Barbie doll.
“I aim to show my desire to merge both Fulla and Barbie as one identity. As much as I attempt to combine these two identities I will always be observed as Fulla. Fulla is about my inner chaos as a Muslim woman facing challenges most people take for granted,” she explains on her website.
To illustrate this, Jacobs has embellished six prayer mats with Western body adornments which are hung on the wall – this separates them from their intended function and defeats their religious purpose. “Fulla” evokes the original doll and its religious messages through the prayer mats, but then creates a hybrid by adding Barbie elements: nail polish, bedazzling, hair extensions.
“Each body adornment follows the pattern of the prayer mat. Emphasising my attempt to alter the expectations of being a modest Muslim women by westernising these expectations. This action shows the West imposing on me through media but I am also represented as the one imposing on my own religion and challenging this idea of what a modest Muslim woman should be and how they should appear.”
Fulla also examines how although the pressure to subscribe to either Western beauty ideals or Islam’s standards of modesty is external, women become complicit in these dynamics as they enact them. “My main focus in my work is to express myself trying to cleanse Islam from the stain, which is the West but at the same time I am depicting myself as the thing staining Islam, ” Jacobs told Between 10 and 5.
Through this exploration Jacobs’ work has universal relevance for all women who have walked the fine line of respectability, and struggled to embody contradicting social values that are part of the same self.
Fulla is the result of Jacobs’ final year at Michaelas, where she completed her Bachelor of Fine Art in 2016.