How to be queer in the Arab world

It may be one of the first things that speakers of Arabic notice, but it’s likely to have escaped the rest of us. The new exhibition of the Institut du Monde Arabe “Habibi: Les Révolutions de l’Amour” has an Easter egg in the Arabic title. Curators Élodie Bouffard, Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Nada Majdoub wanted to use gender-neutral, inclusive language in both the French and Arabic texts used throughout the exhibition. The male in the title of the show habibi (a term of endearment meaning “my love” or “darling”) is combined with the feminine form habib, typeface design courtesy of graphic design agency Studio Akakir. It’s a detail that shows how the curators tried to think of everything. And yet their attempt to provide an exhaustive account of queerness in the Arab and Persian worlds has actually spread the subject thin.

The show will open with works by the Iranian artist Alireza Shojaian, whose acrylic pencil Sous le ciel de Shiraz, Arthur (2022) was chosen as the poster for the exhibition. Shojaian’s male nudes sit or lie comfortably in intimate, home settings, gazing fondly at the viewer. His use of colored pencils makes her skin and hair look soft and shiny and inviting. He places the male body in positions of vulnerability or traditional femininity – gazing into a mirror, surrounded by flowers or in a private moment of heartbreak. Motifs from traditional Persian miniatures accompany his figures, such as the small figure on horseback Tristan, Jardin Persan toilet (2020) represents Khosrow, the hero of a tragic love poem in Persian literature. Shojaian’s muscular men are transformed into heroes or lovers – but unlike Khosrow, Tristan is stripped of his armor. These defenseless men are heroes of a new kind of love story.

Alireza Shojaian

Sous le ciel de Shiraz, Arthur (2022), Alireza Shojaian. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery La La Lande; © Alireza Shojaian

An installation by the artist duo Jeanne et Moreau continues the theme of domestic space and the depiction of intimacy. Visitors can browse their private photos on an iPhone placed next to a bed, in front of a screen adorned with a photo of an artist sleeping naked. The inclusion of personal photos (the two artists are a real couple) in their artworks evokes the fluid line between what we make public and what we keep private – an issue still prevalent for queer people in much of the Arab world the world is becoming more important: how much of yourself to reveal?

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hands routine by the Lebanese artist Omar Mismar traces the dichotomy of private and public, inside and outside in the form of a timeline. He chronicles him holding hands with his partner over the course of a day, minute after minute, which prompted her to let go – a neighboring car, taller than hers, needed a free hand to tune the car radio, a drink to slurping a passer-by -by whomever they may be seeing- to draw attention to the over-vigilance and self-censorship of gay men in societies where homophobia is rife.

But the exhibition is not about repression – or not only. There’s an airiness to the show, from the camp, to the glitzy costumes worn by the Lebanese drag queens, to the steady pounding of Arabic disco-pop blasting out of the “ballroom,” and a circular video room showing short films projected by queer, sequined clothed belly dancers whizzing across the wall. In the second room of the exhibition, the visitor goes down a flight of stairs like in a basement club and the atmosphere changes: pink neon now delimits different areas of the room and ultraviolet light illuminates the wall text.



There is no shyness here; With steady strokes, illustrator Léa Djeziri paints the audacity of feminist and queer activists in modern Tunisian society, while people gaze coolly and bravely into French photographer Camille Farrah Lenain’s camera lens. “Through other people’s eyes you can tell I’m a trans woman, a Moroccan, a Muslim or whatever the hell you see. But to myself, I’m just a damn good woman named Lalla Rami,” the quote reads, beneath a portrait of a woman wearing a slanted fez and blue suede high-heeled boots. There is no shame in RIDIKKULUZ’s painting of Sultana, a Jordanian-Palestinian drag queen living in New York. The works react to each other: Sultana then speaks for herself in the camp, cheesy video New York to Amman in which she stars, played on a loop in the ballroom.

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But the subject matter is so vast and multifaceted that it feels constrained by the show’s small space. Two spaces are obviously not nearly enough 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: Les Révolutions de l’Amour is housed at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris until February 19, 2023.

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