Knotty problem

Art - Deborah Levy discovers an Iranian artist who lifts the veil on issues of race and gender

Right now, I have three images in my mind. First of all, I see the yellow crumbly dust of Afghanistan. This is TV dust, because it is from television that I have made this picture. I see women and children and thin animals living in this dust, and the women are completely hidden under burqas. They peep out at me from a rectangular grille made from cotton, a tiny window that reminds me of the sliding hatch inside a prison cell door.

The second image is closer to home. It is of a woman standing outside a north London Odeon at 4pm, dressed in full black chador. She is waiting for someone to come out of the cinema. It's two days after the World Trade Center in New York has been destroyed. As she waits, a stream of cars driving past the Odeon hoot loudly and angrily at her. For those men and women pressing their hands on the horn, she has become the visible, but invisible, terrorist they have been told they are at war with.

The third image has been created by the Iranian-born artist Farah Bajull. It is of a young woman in smart western clothes, sitting demurely on a chair. What makes the image startling is that her head has become a round, knotted ball of ancient-looking worry beads. It is as if she has lost her mind to a tangle of knots, prayers, wishes, unresolved dilemmas - all the things worry beads are used for.

Untying the Knot was made during a three-month residency at the International Institute of Visual Arts in London. In Bajull's words, the knot of the title "is the relation between east and west, the conflicts between Islam and Christianity".

As she threaded the 9,000 beads she bought in Brighton and dyed with tea, Bajull was not to know that world events were about to make her themes of national and female identity, of race and gender representation, even more poignant. However, the sculptures and photographs that Bajull has created for this residency are more reflective than prescriptive. Neither eastern nor western, they reflect the artist's own cultural hybridity; Bajull left Iran for the UK when she was 14 years old, and went on to study at the Royal College of Art.

If Untying the Knot is searching for a language to evoke elastic cultural identities, Bajull's 1997 show, "Flick Bag", explored ambiguous female identities. This was a series of glamorous handbags, all immaculate leather and shiny gold clasps. Open these sexy western-style bags and a flick knife springs out of the silk lining inside. Bajull, who took a crash course in making traditional handbags, says she wanted to turn a frivolous fashion accessory into an object of self-defence. But she also wanted to show that what lies inside a cliched feminine object may be quite different to the glossy exterior it presents to the world. The interior of the handbag is full of secrets, turbulence, possible violence.

This theme is echoed in a photographic piece titled Return 2000. Here, Bajull presents herself as what appears to be a stereotype of a passive woman, wrapped in a chador - what she describes as "one hundred suffocating layers of cloth". Yet Bajull also experienced these layers as being protective, "like a crash helmet". That poor woman standing outside the Odeon would probably agree. I have to confess, I have always regarded the chador as saying more about male sexuality and control than anything else, but the Moroccan academic Fatima Mernissi explains some of its complexities in her lucid, brilliant book Beyond the Veil (Saqi Books, 1985): "The first gesture of 'liberated' Arab women was to discard the veil for western dress, which in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties was that of the wife of the coloniser."

It would seem this dilemma describes some of the knots that Bajull is attempting to untie.

"Farah Bajull: untying the knot" is at the Institute of International Visual Arts, 6-8 Standard Place, Rivington Street, London EC2 (020 7729 9616), until 26 October

Deborah Levy is a novelist, playwright and poet. Her most recent novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, is published in paperback by Penguin on 2 April