VISITING THAHAB: NABIL (NABEELA) VEGA
NEW BEDFORD ART MUSEUM/ARTWORKS!
608 PLEASANT STREET
NEW BEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS
THROUGH MARCH 25
by Don Wilkinson
There is something particularly intriguing in one of the videos by Nabil (Nabeela) Vega, in which a figure is draped in a shimmering shroud of gold lame, their identity concealed, their face hidden. [Gender neutral pronouns are used at the request of the artist.]
The cloaked figure is on a bridge over the Charles River, and the Hancock and the Prudential are clearly visible in the background. Pedestrians stroll by with barely a glance, focused runners do not slow their pace, and cars whiz by without an unnecessary beeping of the horn.
It is as if seeing a golden ghost on the side of the road were the most ordinary of events. It may be a particularly Bostonian “I’ve seen it all” attitude or a practiced indifference. Nonchalance may not be acceptance — but it’s a start.
Vega, who was born in Bangladesh and migrated to the United States as a child four days before September 11, 2001, is a Muslim femme video artist. Vega wears the cloak of gold (or, on occasion, black) as a commentary on the difficulty of being a person of color, transgender and Muslim in a time of great diaspora and intimidating identity politics.
In that metallic fabric, equal parts hijab, nightgown and superhero costume, Vega is both anonymous and attention-seeking. Vega’s alter-ego is Thahab, a character that wanders the streets, partaking in everyday activities. But there is nothing that makes it particularly about being Muslim or trans.
But it is certainly about the ever-present “Other,” in the phenomenological sense of the word. Hidden beneath that cloth, the viewer cannot determine ethnicity, race, or gender. Gay or straight, cis or trans, young or old are unknowns.
Only when the material clings to Thahab’s figure does it offer a clue to their physicality. And even that is an irrelevant fluke.