December 1, 2022

How to be queer in the Arab world

It might be one of the first things Arabic speakers notice, but it’s likely lost on the rest of us. The Arab World Institute’s new exhibition, “Habibi: The Revolutions of Love,” has an Easter egg in its Arabic title. Curators Élodie Bouffard, Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Nada Majdoub wanted to use non-sexist and inclusive language in the French and Arabic texts used throughout the exhibition. In the show’s title, the masculine Habibi (a term of endearment meaning ‘my love’ or ‘darling’) is combined with the feminine form lived, courtesy of font design by design agency Studio Akakir. This is a detail that shows how the Conservatives have tried to think of everything. And yet, their attempt to provide an exhaustive depiction of homosexuality across the Arab and Persian world has actually scattered the subject.

The exhibition opens with works by Iranian artist Alireza Shojaian, including acrylic and pencil Under the sky of Shiraz, Arthur (2022) was chosen as the poster for the exhibition. Shojaian’s male nudes, comfortably seated or reclining in intimate, domestic settings, stare tenderly at the viewer. Her use of colored pencils makes their skin and hair soft and shiny, inviting to the touch. It places the male body in positions of vulnerability or traditional femininity – gazing at itself in a mirror, surrounded by flowers, or in a private moment of grief. Patterns of traditional Persian miniatures accompany his figures, such as the little figure on horseback in Tristan, Persian Garden Cloth (2020) depicting Khosrow, the hero of a tragic love poem in Persian literature. Shojaian’s musclemen are made into heroes or lovers – but unlike Khosrow, Tristan is stripped of his armor. These helpless men are the heroes of a new type of love story.

Under the sky of Shiraz, Arthur (2022), Alireza Shojaian. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie La La Lande; © Alireza Shojaian

An installation by the artist duo Jeanne and Moreau pursues the theme of domestic space and the representation of intimacy. Visitors can scroll through their private photos on an iPhone placed next to a bed, in front of a screen adorned with a photo of one of the artists taking a naked nap. The inclusion of personal photos (the two artists are a real-life couple) in their works evokes the fluid boundary between what we make public and what we keep private – an issue that takes on even greater significance for queer people in a much of the Arab world. world: what part of themselves to reveal?

Hand routine by Lebanese artist Omar Mismar traces the dichotomy between private and public, in and out, in the form of a chronology. He records the moments he held his partner’s hand over the course of a day, minute by minute, recording what made them let go – an adjacent car higher than theirs, needing a free hand to tune the car radio, sipping a drink, a passer-by – who can see them – drawing attention to the hyper-vigilance and self-censorship of gay men in societies where homophobia is prevalent.

But the exhibition is not about repression – or not only. There’s a lightness to the show, from the camp, flashy costumes of Lebanese drag queens to the steady thump of Arabic disco-pop that echoes from the “ballroom”, and a circular video room where the short films are interspersed with projections of queer, sequin-clad belly dancers stroll through the wall. The visitor descends a staircase in the second room of the exhibition as if descending into a club in the basement and the atmosphere changes: pink neon lights now delimit the different sections of the room and the ultraviolet light makes the text shine wall.


the girl (2021), RIDIKKULUZ. © RIDIKKULUZ

There is no shyness here; With a confident stroke, illustrator Léa Djeziri draws the cheekiness of feminist and queer activists in modern Tunisian society, while people stare cold-bloodedly and boldly at the lens of French photographer Camille Farrah Lenain. “It’s through other people’s eyes that you can tell I’m a trans woman, a Moroccan woman, a Muslim or whatever you see. But to me, I’m just a damn woman who goes by the name Lalla Rami,” reads the quote below a portrait of a woman wearing a tilted fez and blue suede high-heeled boots. There’s also no shame in RIDIKKULUZ’s painting of Sultana, a Jordanian drag queen. -Palestinian living in New York The works respond to each other: Sultana then talks about herself in the camp, corny video New York to Amman in which she plays, played on repeat in the ballroom.

But the subject is so vast and multifaceted that he feels constrained by the show’s small space. Two pieces are obviously far from enough to begin to scratch the surface of what it means to be queer in North Africa and the Middle East today. It’s an ambitious introduction to some of the region’s most interesting and daring artists – but an introduction nonetheless.

“Habibi: Revolutions of Love” is at Arab World Institute, Paris until February 19, 2023.