In the Frankfurt exhibition space SYNNIKA, documentary films and drawings show how queer communities in certain countries of the Arabic-speaking world defy discrimination and repression.
“For those who fall in love with people of the same sex or have a different gender identity, life in the Arab world is difficult,” explains the “Atlas of the Arab Spring”, published by the German Federal Center for Political Education in 2016. “Stigmatization, discrimination and violence by the state, society and within the family is part of their everyday lives,” the authors Shereen El-Feki and Georges Azzi continue. In the current “Spartacus Gay Travel Index”, countries like Egypt, Morocco and Jordan are in the lower third of the total of 202 listed states.
Julian Volz aims to take a look behind the figures and key words. “What kind of a queer culture exists in the Arabic-speaking world?”, he asked some time ago. He has always been interested in the region, explains the political scientist and curator, who divides his time between Brussels and Frankfurt, in an interview. Two years ago he began a research project that took him to Beirut and Paris, among others, where Volz interviewed artists and intellectuals. The result is an exhibition with documentary and artistic elements.
It’s called “Mithly” and it can be seen at SYNNIKA, an experimental space for theory and practice, in Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel district. “Mithly” is the first Arabic word for homosexuality that is not derogatory, Volz explains, and the word has only existed for around 15 years. Alongside the current situation, he is interested in the lives of queer people in the Arabic-speaking world from another perspective too. Through their books and their travels, writers like André Gide (1869-1951) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) contributed to establishing the “Orient” as an “exotic” place of male gay longing in western culture.
The western view of the queer culture in the Arab world remains beset by “orientalist” fantasies to this day, Volz laments. To get an idea of the French perspective on this view, he spoke to sociologist and author Antoine Idier, born in 1988, who specializes in the history of the French gay movement. The interview is in part a documentary-style, two-channel video installation, which forms part of the exhibition. The film, which lasts around one and a half hours, features interviews with three artists, who reveal individual approaches to the history and present of queer culture in Arab societies.
Hence the Lebanese curator and video and installation artist Akram Zaatari, who was born in 1966, presents the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, a collection of the photographic history of the Arab world which he co-founded. By way of example, he talks about the shots by the southern Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani (1928-2017), whose photo studio with its protective privacy gave rise to images of tenderly touching men. Meanwhile, photographer and filmmaker Mohamad Abdouni, who also lives in Beirut, publishes “Cold Cuts”, a photographic magazine for queer culture in the Middle East.
In Volz’s video installation, he presents excerpts from Adbouni’s documentary film “ANYA KNEEZ. A Queen in Beirut”, which is a portrait of a drag queen living in the Lebanese capital. Parisian writer, journalist and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, who has Moroccan roots, covers topics including his autobiographically inspired novel “Celui qui est digne d’être aimé”, which was published in France in 2017. The book is about a young Moroccan who meets an French intellectual and moves to Paris with him. In an interview, Taïa also discusses the spirit of optimism evident in the Moroccan LGBTQI* scene in spite of all the repression, which manifests itself in the success of various queer social media stars.
A second essential part of the exhibition is comprised of drawings by artist Soufiane Ababri, who was born in the Moroccan capital Rabat in 1985 and now divides his time between Paris and Tangier. The inspiration for his colorful drawings, entitled “bedworks”, as Ababri explains in a video interview, came from his own smartphone snapshots, but also from films, pornography, video clips, archive material and photos. He pursues drawing to deliberately break away from the French tradition of art education, which places little value on this medium. He also chooses to work in bed. The fact that he is an immigrant, a homosexual, and a member of a post-colonial generation with dark skin gives him a different outlook on things, Ababri says. At the SYNNIKA he is exhibiting homoerotically charged drawings relating sometimes explicitly and sometimes poetically to male desire and sexuality.
In another video by Julian Volz, painter Alireza Shojaian, who lives in Paris and was born in 1988, recounts his experiences in Tehran and Beirut as well as his understanding of queer art. He considers the strategies of the western LGBTQI* movements and makes the case for adopting certain elements in relation to the Arab world. Julian Volz can also see that something is happening in the region: “There is an emancipation movement.” It’s true that life is not easy for queer people in the Arab world, but “the people are keen to be open and self-confident, to live their culture.”