Are we really free to be, to love and to show who we are without danger? No matter where you are in the world, it is often difficult to answer yes. And perhaps it is even more difficult when you live in an Arab-Muslim country. Yet change is underway, as evidenced by the exhibition “Habibi, The Revolutions of Love” (27 September 2022-19 February 2023), organised at the Arab World Institute (AWI) in Paris.
23 artists from the Arab-Muslim world (including Afghanistan and Iran) and the diasporas have taken up the subject of queerdom and are making their voices heard. Some are part of the community while others define themselves as allies of the cause. All have come together in an emancipatory movement, whether it be a question of sexuality and plural identities, of borders being erased – for the duration of the show, a photo or an entire life.
“Our goal was to address the issue of individual freedom, the representation of bodies, the possibility of being whoever you want to be when you want to be,” says Élodie Bouffard, the exhibition’s curator, as the darkness of the rooms, gives way to the works. Here we take a look at three artists who are freeing themselves from “gender”.
Mohamad Abdouni, ‘Treat Me Like Your Mother’
We are quickly caught up in the images of Lebanese photographer and director Mohamad Abdouni. We see the same face again and again. That of the trans woman Em Abed, represented at various moments of her life, throughout a collection of photos unearthed from her youth, taken by strangers, on a bus, at a party… Sometimes Em Abed is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, without make-up. At other times, she is wearing a French cancan dress and lipstick.
“A figure in the trans world, Em Abed was one of the first to dare to dress as a woman and walk around Beirut in the 1990s,” says Bouffard. But the country’s history did not hold her back. Like many members of this community, she was buried in oblivion… until Mohamad Abdouni decided to rehabilitate her memory and that of these pioneers of the genre, in the fourth issue of his magazine Cold Cuts, dedicated to the promotion of queer cultures. It is an extract from this work that is presented here.
To bring his series, “Treat Me Like Your Mother”, to life, Abdouni collaborated with Helem, an organisation that defend queer rights, and with the Fondation Arabe pour l’image (Arab Image Fondation). Using archival images and studio portraits, the photographer tells the story of ten trans women: their childhoods, their traumas during the Lebanese war, their professions, their families, their joys…
Khookha McQueer is an iconic figure on the Arab queer scene. She is very well known in the Maghreb and beyond, and has even worked on a dictionary of queer language in Arabic.
“Mohamad Abdouni is making a militant archive, in order to found the history of the Lebanese queer community, to make the trajectories of these women the stages of a historical fresco, to prevent them from being forgotten”, explains the exhibition’s curator. The title of the project makes it easy to imagine the artist’s intention: that everyone should respect these women and their lives as they would respect their own mothers. After being the stars of Beirut at the end of the 20th century, most of these trans women have fallen into poverty. Abdouni offers them a place again, this time as works of art.
Khookha McQueer’s militant hashtags
Hashtag “drag”, “feminist”, “non-binary”. A few metres away from Abdouni’s works, Khookha McQueer takes over, with prints of her Instagram publications and hashtags in 30-point font as captions.
Sometimes dressed in a corset, sometimes adorned with long blue hair that matches her beard, sometimes naked under a jewelled ensemble, the Tunisian performer is also navigating between the genre’s territory. And she does it from her country, Tunisia, where the LGBTQ community is marginalised and mistreated.
“She is one of those artists using digital technology to dematerialise the physical and political relationship to space, who create another space for encounters,” says Bouffard. Beyond national laws, social networks offer artists a wider space for expression, a place to archive memory – a parallel world. “Khookha McQueer is an iconic figure on the Arab queer scene. She is very well known in the Maghreb and beyond, and has even worked on a dictionary of queer language in Arabic,” says the curator.
Chaza Charafeddine, mythological trans identities
“Most of the artists exhibited are part of the new guard and are around 30 years old,” says Bouffard, stopping in front of the triptych of atypical angels by Chaza Charafeddine. “She is one of the ‘old-timers’ working on these themes,” she says. For the AWI, it was impossible to deal with the issue of gender without inviting this Lebanese artist, a pioneer in the field.
“The three paintings exhibited here are taken from a solo show that largely preceded ‘Habibi’, since it dates from 2011. It was suggested to the artist by the famous gallery owner Saleh Barakat. Her series, which is much larger, was first exhibited in Beirut,” says Bouffard.
In the early 2000s, the Lebanese alternative scene was rich, but not very visible. Charafeddine was asked to do a joint project with underground performers. The series “Divine Comedy”, criticises the historical neglect and denial of the Muslim world, revealing to the general public portraits of the transgender and drag artist community in the form of mythological figures. “To illustrate her point, what better choice than her three angels?” Bouffard smiles as she looks at the pictures, one of which represents a winged woman soberly adorned with a jewel.
Although bodies, sexualities and transitions are still minority topics on the public scene in the Arab world, they can no longer be denied. “Habibi, The Revolutions of Love” tells the story of the rise of LGBTQIA+ activism in Arabic-speaking countries, which has been gaining ground since 2011. A plurality of identities opposed to the prevailing conservatism – and daring to claim their existence on the artistic battlefield.