Habibi, the revolutions of love: Paris exhibition beams rays of light onto queer love in the Arab region

Habibi, revolutions of love
7 min read
08 February, 2023
An embrace of queer identity and intimacy, the newly installed exhibition 'Habibi, the revolutions of love' showcases and questions the ideas surrounding queer love in the Arab world and beyond, countering orthodox perceptions through creativity.

In a colourful setting on level -1 of the Arab World Institute (IMA) in the heart of Paris, installations, videos, paintings, drawings, designs and embroideries are showcased until February 19 under the title Habibi, the revolutions of love.

The exhibition focuses on queer love and expression in the Arab world, as well as Iran and Afghanistan, shedding light on an often taboo topic in the countries the artists come from.

The exhibition itself is far from a narrow portrayal of love under oppression.

"The queer topic is the line that allows us to question the ideas of norms, social identities, body’s politicisation, the question of surveillance as well as the way others perceived you, notably through the European gaze"

It goes through motions and narratives, embracing more complex issues such as exile, politics, survival, intimacy and finding happiness, either at home or abroad.

The selection of more than 20 artists, sometimes gathered in collaborations or collectives, from very various countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia, bring to life a lot of creativity and desire.

The exhibition turns easily into a conversation between the artists and the themes, which answer each other with harmony and subtlety.

Chaza Charafeddine - L ange Gardien I, Divine comedy series (c) Chaza Charafeddine
Chaza Charafeddine - L ange Gardien I, Divine comedy series (c) Chaza Charafeddine

The project itself was born from conversations led between curators and contemporary artists during and after the IMA’s exhibition Divas, from Oum Kalthoum to Dalida back in 2021.

“There were these constellations of themes that could be explored setting up around us, and we have seen a lot of interrogations on genders and sexualities,” Elodie Bouffard, the exhibition curator alongside Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Nada Majdoub, told The New Arab. “It kind of imposed itself on us!”

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The choice was not to focus on geography and lead a “country by country” organisation, but instead to highlight the creations’ quality and make it a topic among the others as it is often done in an institution such as IMA.

“The artistic expression is itself enough, led by a new scene that will certainly make the contemporary scene of tomorrow,” Elodie said.

“We made sure to see what united the pieces, and we saw that it goes beyond the topic of sexuality. Some cross paths, some clash with their activism and others are more playful, some are feminists… The queer topic is the line that allows us to question the ideas of norms, social identities, body’s politicisation, the question of surveillance as well as the way others perceived you, notably through the European gaze.”

Fadi Elias-Serie 520 (c) Fadi Elias
Fadi Elias-Serie 520 (c) Fadi Elias

Despite the choice to open to many countries and artists, Lebanon is overly represented, through the presence of many Lebanese artists but also artists who lived and worked in Beirut for a few months or years.

“In Lebanon, you have a lot of personalities, many spaces dedicated to cultural interventions as well as an activist History through organizations like Helem for example [first LGBTQIA+ rights organisation in the Arab world] that did a lot for LGBTQ+ struggles,” Elodie explained. “All of this combined makes Lebanon an unavoidable place to work and exhibit for queer artists from the region.”

This is the case of Alireza Shojaian, an Iranian artist born in 1988 and who lived a few years in Beirut before moving on to Paris in 2019. “I was an artist in Iran but my art was sitting in my closet,” Alireza told The New Arab.

“In Lebanon, I could create and be exhibited, there is freedom and space to do that there and that’s why it’s so represented in that exhibition. You know, the first time I was exhibited was in another Arab country! I often feel that the Iranian authorities try to prevent us to travel to the rest of the region so that we don’t find the spaces of expression that exist.”

Alireza Shojaian - Tristan Jardin Persan (c)Alireza Shojaian
Alireza Shojaian - Tristan Jardin Persan (c)Alireza Shojaian

The main work he is exhibiting is a big mural called The Mirror, a self-portrait representing his suspended time in Beirut through the city in the background, his identity through the books on the shelf and his state of mind, a lingering sadness as a person in exile.

It also represents five photographs on the mirror, one of an intimate moment of his life, one of his military service, Bashasha and a friend by 1950s Lebanese photographer Heshem el Madani, US gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, as well as Two Men Dancing, a photograph from Robert Mapplethorpe, from a 1980s performance piece entitled The Power of Theatrical Madness.

Shojaian felt important to participate in such an exhibition, first because of its location: “It’s in an institution dedicated to the Arab world and the topic LGBTQ+ has always been neglected there. It is important to show that this topic exists in the Arab world, and towards the West to also remind them where the laws and rules against homosexuality come from, that maybe they can help.”

Most of the official status in the Arab world on homosexuality was taken during the British and French mandates and occupations, for example in Lebanon as a colonial relic from the early 1900s. “It is also for me, as an Iranian, because I am able to give my voice to the thousands who can’t speak up in my country,” Alireza added.


Also quite political, Tunisian artist Aïcha Snoussi, born in 1989 and currently living in Paris, decided to tackle the tough topics of the people who drowned during the crossing of the Mediterranean sea through a big installation, as well as the troubles of the world through a self-portrait, pensive in her room. “The two works echo each other,” she told The New Arab.

“Multiplicity on one side, with more than 700 bottles filled with old paper, archives, inks and organic elements. The uniqueness on the other side, that of a canvas made of the same materials but recounting the chaos of the world from within.”

In the exhibition, Aïcha also noted the themes of exile, history, archives, memory, transmission and struggle, which are according to her “intimately linked to that of the body, its representations and these evanescences”.

“These sensitivities and trajectories give rise to new narratives, which are relatively under-represented in art but also in queer culture, and therefore necessary,” she added. “It is also a visibility that sends a message of power and resistance to those who recognize themselves in it.”

Aïcha Snoussi - Sépulture aux noyé.e.s ©Marc Domage
Aïcha Snoussi - Sépulture aux noyé.e.s ©Marc Domage

Other artists chose to address those themes of both love and exile through a more intimate approach, such as the Lebanese visual artistic duo Jeanne & Moreau, composed of Lara Tabet and Randa Mirza.

They set up a bedroom displaying pictures and videos they exchanged during their long-distance relationship time as well as when they started living together, first in Lebanon then in France, through crisis, exile and changes in their approach to art and each other.

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“First we were apart, there was a desire of seduction, then the 2019 crisis in Lebanon with an economic collapse and then the explosion of the Beirut port,” Lara Tabet told The New Arab.

“At the same time as those repeated crises, our relationship changed too. We decided to exhibit a bedroom, where a lot of intimate things are renegotiated, which also represents a delicate balance between the idyllic privilege of living as a nomad and the harshness of forced exile, as well as domesticity.”

The installation combines intimacy inside and activism outside for their country, the crisis inviting itself into intimacy through the destruction of their Beirut apartment during the August 2020 explosion.

Sexuality, struggles, identity and perception of yourself go across the narratives IMA exhibited in an explosion of themes, freedom and colours in an expression space where audiences often associate pain and shame.

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena