Art - Isabel Carlisle looks beneath the veil to reveal its many different meanings

In the west, the veil has connotations of Greek draperies, brides, mourning and the erotic: think of Emma Hamilton's "Attitudes", Isadora Duncan's dances or Alma-Tadema's barely clad figures, where the veil both conceals and reveals. In the east, and in Islamic cultures especially, the veil is concealing and timeless. The meaning that it carries is both social and religious. It has little to do with aesthetics, and the female persona beneath it is an interior, private one. Depending on the perspective of the wearer, it can be as protecting as it is restricting, and is only overtly erotic when worn by dancing houris. These dancers invested western perceptions of the veil with exotic orientalism, and inspired the paintings of odalisques of artists such as Ingres and Matisse. The complete veiling of devout Muslim women, on the other hand, long ago became one of the symbols by which the west categorised Muslims as the "other" of western civilisation.

With such a range of interpretations, can there be a communication of experience that allows east and west to meet across a strip of fabric? Yes, if the artist is brave enough to abandon the self-referential or ironic language of so much contemporary art, and speak with an authentic voice about true stories.

The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat is a skilful creator of iconic images in video and photography. In the photograph Allegiance with Wakefulness, the long muzzle of a gun protrudes between a pair of bare feet whose soles are inscribed with Farsi poetry by Forugh Farrokhzad, tragic poetess of 20th-century Iran. If you can't read Farsi, the script is meaningless, which the curators try to suggest symbolises mental veiling but which I found simply frustrating. There is nothing obscure about the image itself, which manages to be both poetic and defiant, quintessentially Iranian and universal.

Shadafarin Ghadirian's pictures of women posed in a photographer's studio are less explicit. They imitate Iranian court photographs but are given a modern twist. Alongside the old-fashioned and all-enveloping costumes are present-day objects such as a bicycle, a television or Coke cans. Without the accompanying explanation informing the viewer that their clothes are too antiquated to be worn in Iran today, it might have been possible to miss the irony and accept these images as documentary.

Kourush Adim brings us closer to the veil itself. Photographed against an anony-mous grassy landscape with a single tree on the horizon, the veil is streaming freely while also swathing an unseen human figure in the manner of the Victory of Samothrace, drawing upon both classical and oriental imagery. Farah Bajull's Notime juxtaposes a three-dimensional turban made out of worry beads and a string with a photo of a woman's lower torso and legs entwined in lengths of worry beads. One knee is provocatively exposed while the hands are imprisoned, fingers reaching through the coils in a clear message of female constraint.

Identity photos of Algerian women taken by Marc Garanger in the 1960s reveal powerful personal stories. On the orders of the French occupation force, he photographed nearly 2,000 women at the rate of 200 a day. "It was the faces of the women that struck me most," he wrote. "They had no choice. They were forced to unveil and be photographed. They had to sit on a stool, outdoors, in front of the white wall of a house. They glared at me from point-blank range; I was the first to witness their silent but fierce protest." There are no ingratiating smiles, but only resentment, defiance, anxiety, supplication, questioning and sometimes amusement expressed in the faces of this subjugated people.

I hoped I might find some of the Muslim artists making the imaginative leap into what it would be like to be inside a veil looking out, or even to be a veil. What stories would a burqa tell of its wearer? A video work by Zineb Sedira shows what it feels like to be a baffled child looking into the expressive eyes of a veiled mother. The most successful works told personal stories in such a gifted truthful way that they succeeded in transcending barriers.

"Veil" is at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, West Midlands (0192 2654400) until 27 April; at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool L1 (0151 709 5689) and Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool L1 (0151 709 9460) from 5 July to 16 August; and at Modern Art Oxford, OX1 (01865 813830) from 22 November to 26 January 2004

Isabel Carlisle writes for the Times and is organising a festival of Islam in the UK

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