How 23 Artists Explore Queerness in the Arab World

“Habibi, Love’s Revolutions” reflects on LGBTQ experiences and identities

The poster for "Habibi, Love’s Revolutions"
The poster for "Habibi, Love's Revolutions" features art by Alireza Shojaian. Institut du monde arabe

Habibi is an Arabic term of endearment, functioning somewhat like “sweetie,” “darling” or “beloved,” depending on the situation. In the context of “Habibi, Love’s Revolutions,” a new exhibition at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe, the word refers to queer Arab love. Artworks from 23 Arab artists, all queer or queer allies, cover some 8,000 square feet of museum space. 

The pieces on display include an oil painting of a Palestinian drag queen by the artist Ridikkuluz; a collection of erotic sketches by Soufiane Ababri; and a red neon structure by Lebanese artist Omar Mismar, which replicates the paths he walked to find men on the dating app Grindr.

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A post shared by ®️ RIDIKKULUZ (@ridikkuluz)

“This show is a world first for the Arab world,” Élodie Bouffard, a co-curator of the show, tells the New York Times’ Nazanin Lankarani. “We explore through art, the relationship of artists with society, with love, memory and intimacy and their power to make history.”

The works in “Habibi” share an element of fearlessness, as they depict queerness in countries and cultures that marginalize and punish it. Homosexuality is illegal in many countries in the Arab world. In some of them, it is a crime punishable by death.

Stories of queer people existing and resisting are often left out of mainstream narratives and histories, and “Habibi” seeks to correct that. As a collection, the exhibition unequivocally declares queerness as an integral part of the Arab world. Take the work, for example, of Lebanese photographer Mohamad Abdouni. In “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” Abdouni uses archival material to paint a vivid portrait of Em Abed, a trans pioneer who lived in Beirut—and whose story has been largely forgotten.

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A post shared by Mohamad Abdouni (@texting_bitches)

“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,” Bouffard tells the Africa Report’s Jane Roussel.

The work of Lebanese multimedia artist Chaza Charafeddine also seeks to revise history, albeit a bit more abstractly. In three photo collages on display in “Habibi,” Charafeddine depicts trans people and drag queens as holy, mythological figures, using stylistic elements borrowed from Persian or Mughal art. The series, called Divine Comedy, criticizes the neglect of the underground queer Lebanese scene, per the Africa Report. 

Iranian artist Alireza Shojaian, who left his home country in 2016 to more freely pursue his art, commends the museum for centering queer Arab artists like himself.

“We are grateful for the courage of this museum and for giving us a chance,” Shojaian tells the Times. “Some say we should not label our art as queer. But art is our medium, and our existence is resistance.”

Habibi, Love’s Revolutions” is on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris through February 19, 2023.

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