The Woman in the Neon Niqab

Questions about Europe and Muslim immigrants at the Venice Biennale.

“High Visibility Burqa” by Marco Biagini.

Photographer: Noah Feldman

Immigration is one of the great themes of the 2015 Venice Biennale -- which makes a lot of sense for the signature European art fair in an era when immigration is Europe’s most pressing political issue. But the most thought-provoking piece on the subject that I saw here in three days wasn’t actually in the festival. It was a temporary performance staged Wednesday morning near the entrance to the beautiful gardens where the national pavilions display their works. And it consisted of a single woman standing silently, staring ahead without moving -- a bit in the manner of the silent human statues you can see in New York's Central Park or London's Trafalgar Square, which for the most part don’t seem like good art at all.

What made the woman extraordinary was her outfit. She was dressed in a full niqab -- not only a headscarf or cloak but both, her face covered except for a slit for each eye. And her niqab clearly wasn’t the ordinary niqab of a very observant Muslim woman. It was made out of yellow reflective cloth, with four bright reflective silver stripes, like those you’d see on a first-responder. Imagine a yellow fireman’s coat turned into a conservative Muslim woman’s garb and you’ll know what I mean.

It took only a moment to realize the woman was making art. But what did the piece mean? Was it pro-Muslim or Islamophobic? Pro-immigration or anti?

Eventually I found a flier naming the performance piece as “High Visibility Burqa” by the Italian artist Marco Biagini. But knowing the name didn’t answer my questions. That requires independent analysis -- and sheds light on today’s European immigration challenge.

First, it’s worth imaging the piece as a statement warning against Islam and criticizing immigration, views that aren’t hard to find in contemporary Europe. According to this interpretation, the piece is meant to draw emergency attention (“Danger, Danger”) to the phenomenon of European Muslim immigration. The piece would then be noting that traditionally dressed Muslims are highly visible, and warning that their presence shouldn’t be normalized.

One could add to this somewhat uncharitable interpretation that the piece could be noting that a niqab in Europe isn’t an act of modesty, indicating that the wearer doesn’t want to be noticed. It’s actually the opposite -- a way of saying, “Look at me.” The niqab would then be “high visibility” in that it draws attention to the wearer’s presence, to her difference, and to her distinct religious and cultural beliefs.

The counterinterpretation would see the bright yellow, reflective niqab as a comment on how Europeans see Muslim immigrants in general, and Muslim women in particular: as a dangerous threat and a highly visible instance of otherness. The idea would be that Europeans experience religious and cultural difference as a threat -- when, in fact, there’s no reason a person couldn’t wear a niqab and be an ordinary European.

Bringing home this interpretation is the fact that we can’t know what’s underneath the niqab. Later in the day, after the performance was over, I happened to glimpse the artist with a woman who had almost certainly been the woman wearing the niqab. She was the right height and had the right eyes and was carrying a package that could’ve held the outfit. But, of course, I couldn’t be sure -- which is precisely the point. In the niqab, her individual appearance was suppressed -- even though her identity statement (if that’s what it was) spoke loudly.

What does this ambiguous piece of art mean for a Europe that feels swamped by Muslim immigrants, and sees daily news stories about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean? Most important, it points out that Europe is becoming fixated not so much on the reality of Muslim immigration as on its symbolic character.

There are practical questions aplenty about immigration: How can immigrants be supported and integrated into the economy? What social support should they receive, and can Europe afford it?

But the symbolic questions seem to be more salient. Europeans wonder if Muslims can be assimilated into European culture. Some, perhaps many, Europeans think that economic integration can’t happen without Muslims giving up traditional values and the garb that comes with them.

The familiar feminist critique of headscarves and veils becomes relevant in this context as well. Are Muslim women who wear a niqab free to choose? Or are they coerced by cultural norms or by men who want them to be second-class? Europeans haven’t successfully answered these questions, and they remain crucial topics of debate.

At the heart of this debate lies the question of whether Europe can tolerate difference. Assimilated Muslims are well accepted in many European societies. But assimilated Jews were accepted in many of the same places between World War I and World War II. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic prejudice, often targeted at Jews in traditional garb, remained strong. And we know the tragic ending of that struggle over difference, Europe’s last.

“High Visibility Burqa” wasn’t meant to be lasting art. But the performance had a certain beauty. And it certainly provoked thought on some of the most pressing political problems facing Europe today. I’ll remember it.

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    Noah Feldman at

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    Stacey Shick at

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