International Women's Day with Arpita Shah

Introducing Arpita Shah, our wonderful artist in focus for International Women’s Day.

Shah is a photographic artist and educator based between Edinburgh and Eastbourne. She works between photography and film, exploring the intersections of culture and identity. Shah spent an earlier part of her life living between India, Ireland and the Middle East before settling in the UK. This migratory experience is reflected in her practice, which often focuses on the notion of home, belonging and shifting cultural identities.

We're delighted to be in conversation with Shah to learn more about her photographic practice, with a special focus on her series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth


'Sari', from the series 'Purdah - The Sacred Cloth'.
Sari, from the series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth.
Tudong, from the series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth.

In 2019, the National Galleries of Scotland acquired these four portraits from her series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth. The series captures a number of women from the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities in Scotland who practice the tradition of head covering or veiling.

The term Purdah ("to curtain") varies in meaning amongst particular South Asian and Arab cultures. It can refer literally to a fabric used to cover something sacred but it is also used traditionally to signify the veiling, modesty and privacy of women.

Hijab, from the series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth.
Niqab, from the series Purdah - The Sacred Cloth.

NGS: Tell us more about this series and the meaning behind it.

Shah: These portraits attempt to shift the focus of from the physical to the spiritual act of drawing open and closing the sacred cloth that each sitter chooses to wear.

The work seeks to enrich our understanding of the practice of , and redress common misconceptions around the tradition of head covering and veiling, through representations of contemporary women from the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities in Scotland who choose to practice its tradition.

The women in these portraits present a variety of cloths, which they wear day to day, during worship, or at particular religious occasions. Ranging from Sikh women in dastar and dupatta, to Hindu women in their sarees, Purdah also includes Muslim women wearing the niqab, abaya, and personal variations of the hijab.

NGS: How did the series come about?

Shah: Purdah - The Sacred Cloth was produced as part of my artist in residency on the Albert Drive project at Tramway, Glasgow where I collaborated with Asian women from the Pollokshields community during Feb 2013 – July 2013.

During the 6-month residency, artists involved were invited to explore the notion of ‘who is my neighbour?’. As part of my research I was running photography workshops with the local South Asian community. I asked the women to bring in something that was sacred to them and many of the women brought in the scarves and fabrics. This prompted us to start talking about the Purdah and its varied uses, meanings and interpretations and that’s what inspired the project.

NGS: Where has the series been exhibited since?

Shah: The series was originally exhibited at the Tramway in 2013. Since, it has been displayed at group shows in India and the USA, It’s also been shown across UK, in 2018 it was exhibited at Autograph, London and last year it was shown at New Art Gallery Walsall as part of a group exhibition titled Too Rich A Soil.

Listen to Shah in conversation with Anne Lyden, Chief Curator of Photography at the National Galleries of Scotland.

26 February 2021