Making the invisible visible: Paris exhibition spotlights Arab queer culture

Making the invisible visible: Paris exhibition spotlights Arab queer culture

For the first time ever, an exhibition offers a journey through the queer culture of the Arab world as it wrestles with gender issues; it starts on Tuesday at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris.

Entitled 'Habibi, the revolutions of love,'['Habibi' means 'my love' in Arabic] this exhibition does not aim to be a "militant manifesto," according to its organisers. It intends to "make visible the obvious, something that has remained invisible for too long," i.e., the cultural ferment of the Arab world on these questions, the exhibition's president, Jack Lang, told French news agency AFP.

Twenty-three artists, photographers, writers and illustrators from the Arab World, Iran and Afghanistan, but also from the diaspora, are exhibited.

"The idea is to introduce to the public this abundance around these themes and the fact that we have here a young generation that seizes on these subjects and makes them the primary source of their creations," exhibition curator Elodie Bouffard told AFP.

We find this abundance in the 7th art with the films 'Le bleu du caftan,' on homosexuality in Morocco, and 'Joyland,' a Pakistani film featuring a transgender actress. Both were presented at the last Cannes Film Festival.

Literature is not to be outdone, as evidenced by the book 'The youngest,' by French writer Fatima Daas, who writes on her refusal to choose between her homosexuality and her Muslim faith. The book was an event of the literary season two years ago.

Still, while these issues are present all across the Arab world, they remain extremely taboo and homosexuality is still largely repressed, sometimes with the death penalty as in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

In June, the Pixar animated film, 'Buzz Lightyear,' failed to obtain a license to be broadcast in a dozen countries and entities in the Middle East and Asia, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to a scene showing a furtive kiss between two women.

"We are aware that this exhibition is something quite unique both internationally and regionally," Khalid Abdel Hadi, co-curator of the exhibition, told AFP.

Hadi, a Jordanian, founded in 2007 the webzine 'My.Kali,' dedicated to making the voices of the Arab world's queer community heard.

One of the common threads of the exhibition is to document, through the intimate, stories of exile and experiences of the diaspora, like the black and white photo series by Sudanese Salih Basheer, which reconstructs the journey of Essam, who left Sudan for Egypt then found refuge in Sweden. Or the pictures of Fadi Elias, featuring portraits of Syrian refugees in Germany. Playing on the vagueness, his photos underline, with their ambiguity, the difficulty of publicly assuming one's sexual identity.

In addition to stories about exile, there is also the need to document a memory. This meticulous work is carried out by Lebanese photographer Mohamad Abdouni who, from the 1990s, has been recording the stories and lives of trans women.

"Collecting, archiving, also means saying that we are here, that we exist and showing that we are part of society," Tunisian Aïcha Snoussi told AFP. In 'Sépulture aux noyées,' the artist imagines a burial place belonging to a queer civilisation whose remains were swallowed up by the Mediterranean.

The issue of bodies, omnipresent, is also borne by Alireza Shojaian, an Iranian artist exiled in France. In his paintings, men are placed in lascivious and vulnerable poses, at odds with the usual codes of virility, in an orientalist composition using Persian miniatures.

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