"The meaning of the term queer has evolved substantially in the English language: from originally referring to the peculiar, to a derogatory term for homosexuals, to an adjective for identities outside a heterotypical binary, to a generalized term for any “non-normative” approach or experience. In other specific instances, it was used to describe Arab Culture.1

In the Arabic language, however, queer has not historically existed as an identifying term, although Arab culture2 has long contained expressions of queerness—both in its non-conformity with Western cultural traditions, and in its occasional celebration of homoeroticism. For instance, the Arab Poet Abu Nuwas explored gay themes in his 9th century poems, which feel contemporary in their celebration of gay lust and desire:

In the bath-house, the mysteries hidden by trousers / Are revealed to you. / All becomes radiantly manifest. / Feast your eyes without restraint!

Queer-y-ing the Arab explores queerness through an Arab perspective, further evolving and applying new understandings of the word queer. The exhibition queries and then queers interpretations of queer3, Arab, and art, pushing the boundaries of assumption to explore unfamiliar meanings. Here, while queer can refer to sexuality, it also refers to any expression of nonconformity—that which breaks with convention or tradition. Even the adjective Arab is approached with openness and queered, as it, too, can have varied interpretations: whether referring to people who speak Arabic, or those who live on the Arabian peninsula, or those who live in Arabic speaking countries. Finally, the exhibition challenges the popular notion of the art space as a sterile white cube, and revises the role of art audiences, and viewers’ ability to alter or use artworks, ultimately affecting their own meaning or interpretation.

Queer Habibi, 1, 2018, Digital drawing, Dimensions variable.

Per the reasons above, it’s important to note that none of the artists fit neatly into simply defined categories suggested by the words queer, Arab and artist. A rigid definition might exclude heterosexual artists, artists who identify as non-Arab but speak Arabic, or artists whose chosen medium isn’t conventionally viewed as “fine art” worthy of inclusion in an art institution. The emphasis here is on a more expansive interpretation and application of all these terms, as they are actively queer-ied in the exhibition. Similarly, a show of 6 artists is necessarily limited in what and who it can represent. Nonetheless the exhibition presented here is part of what I see as a much broader cultural project to which I hope more people feel inspired to build and contribute.

The show opens with Be my guest, a series of rugs by the Brazilian-Syrian artist Jamil Hellu, whose practice explores intersections of cultural identity, race, and queer sexuality. This particular iteration of the series references traditional Arab carpet-making and customs of hospitality, yet all rugs were produced in the UK through an online print-on-demand service. Each rug depicts images of intimacy, portraying tender interactions between men who are meant to be visually identified as Arab by their headdresses and hairiness. The choice of image for the entry rug — a lute player serenading another seated man — is intentionally orientalist. Its strategic placement confronts the Western perspective of the “queer Arab,” by giving it prominence and then inviting visitors to step on its essentializing depiction. Some viewers may step on the other rugs inadvertently, echoing how even well-meaning individuals can suppress queer narratives. There is no guidance on how to navigate these objects. To further queer conventional relationships between viewers and artworks, the footprints on the rugs will also evolve with time, reflecting how many people step on them with soiled shoes.

Jamil Hellu, Be my guest, 2016-21, Digital textile print, Dimensions variable.

Jamil’s wall installation, The Story of A, B, C, D, E, F, explores the construction of one’s queer cultural identity as it is impacted by dominant Western influences. Anchored by a personal and familiar story of a mother’s struggle to understand, accept, and love her son’s non-conformity, the work presents images that evoke the experiences and memories that contribute to shaping an individual. The installation is framed by a large pink square painted on the wall. While the square alludes to historical conceptualizations of homosexuality as a monolithic category, several images straddle its borders, signifying the inability of a single label to contain and define a person.

One area of the exhibition is modeled on a bedroom, where queer imagery appears on throws, blankets, video, and carpets. It queries the white cube’s functionality as a space for unconventional art, as it has been historically uninterested in the non-Western, non-male artist. As the art world slowly starts to embrace under-represented artists, there is still limited space to examine the intersectionalities of marginalized experience. For Arab artists who defy traditional expectations, most of these explorations happen in bedrooms and other private safe spaces.

In this bedroom scene are the works by Queer Habibi, an anoymous art collective whose illustrations depict everyday gay life in the Arab World. Presently, Queer Habibi remains unreachable and elusive, despite multiple attempts at communication. Their social media channels have been silent since the explosion in Beirut in 2020, but their illustrations are available on a plethora of commercially-produced objects like throws, clothing, postcards, and art prints. Their portrayals of simple gay life in the Arab World are both intimate and provocative, plus the placement of their illustrations on objects meant for daily use speaks to a desire for visibility and acceptance.

Aghiles Mana, 1€ Candy Shop Fairy, 2018, Digital drawing, Dimensions variable.

Aghiles Mana’s An Ifrit and Incubus4 shows two figures intimately entwined in a curious power dynamic; a seated turbaned figure appears to be dominating another, holding their throat with a relaxed grip that seems poised to tighten at any moment. But a closer inspection reveals a chain on the would-be strangler’s neck, subjecting him to the control of the figure who reclines languidly on the floor. For Aghiles, an Algerian immigrant in Germany, this work references how the artist has experienced his own identity through a Western gaze: often exoticized and expected to perform the role of a dominant aggressor as per some colonialist fantasy. Aghiles turns that fantasy into an exploration of power and cultural heritage. As a digital illustrator, Aghiles often makes work that doesn’t typically get shown in contemporary art venues—instead, it proliferates online through social media and his blog.

The Earl of Bushwick, The Earl's Kilt 1, 2019, Fabric

As an artist (the Earl of Bushwick) and the curator of this exhibition, I include work of my own that connects to larger conversations about community building and visibility. The Earl’s Kilt 1 and 2 express my efforts to queer traditional symbols of Arab and Levantine5 masculinity. The kilts feature two patterns seen in kufieys', the male headwear worn frequently in the Levant. Having no use for a traditional headdress living in New York, but a fondness for the pattern as a symbol of cultural heritage, I reimagine it as yet another gender non-normative garment: the kilt. It’s a personal way of exploring my own queer Arab American identity in a manner that challenges both Western and Eastern expectations of what my narrative should be. The image of me in a niqab, in A portrait of the Earl herself, explores the intersectionality of gender, identity, religion and non-conformity.

Rima Najdi, This house is virtous and will always remain virtuous, 2021, Live Performance, Duration variable (still).

Two additional artists are featured in online public programs. Rima Najdi, a Berlin-based artist, presents a performance piece for Zoom, titled This house is virtuous and will always remain virtuous. In this work, she adopts the persona of "Dr. Samaher," a radio anchor who reads the date, time, weather and the tarots of the week. The performance investigates the queer space that belly dancers occupy in a highly “traditional” society and their power to advocate for change. Another online program features Elias Wakeem, who will perform Queer Palestinian Herstory By Madam Tayoush as a Palestinian drag queen. Elias explores the power of queerness to resist convention, through which the will to merely exist on one’s own terms is in fact a form of resistance. Both of his identities as “drag queen” and “Palestinian” face ostracization: either by the conservative community he was born into, or by the state in which he lives, occupied Palestine.

The range of works on view in the exhibition are a testament to the creativity of the artists: pushing boundaries of artistic mediums and art spaces to further complicate the relationship between the audience and the art object through an evolving process of queer-y-ing.

The Earl of Bushwick
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2021

1. See: Francis Milton and M.F. Mansfield, In the Land of Mosques and Minarets (Boston: L.C. Page & Co.,1908) p. 375.
2. Which some would argue is better described as Islamicate culture: associated with regions in which Muslims are culturally dominant, but not specifically with the religion of Islam.
3. It merges the near-homophones query and queer (both its more conventional use as noun and adjective, but also its use as a verb, meaning to question something and look at it in a way that makes it appear strange).
4. Ifrit is the Arabic word for genie.
5. The Levant is a historical region comprising the Eastern Mediterannean region of Western Asia.

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