Portraits of Queer Love and Life in the Middle East
Between Lebanon and Iran, the queer art of Alireza Shojaian.
BY ALEXIS STERGAKIS
November 30, 2018
Hidden behind heavy layers of paper and cloth, few pairs of eyes were privy to the work of the Iranian-born artist Alireza Shojaian.
Shojaian’s work was hidden away for the entirety of his studies at the Azzad Islamic Art and Architecture University in Tehran, while the work of his peers hung unashamed in the corridors and galleries of the Iranian capital.
"I couldn’t exhibit my work in Iran. For the duration of my university, my work was on the desk wrapped with paper. My professor would go and ask the other professors to come and see my work, they would have to unwrap it to see it. I was just working with no hope to exhibit. I was putting them in the closet, some of them I wouldn’t be able to even show my family.”
Throughout his fine art studies Shojaian recalls there was only one art history text in his six years of study that hinted at queer art theory. It was in Shojaian’s second year of studies that he attended a controversial exhibition in Tehran featuring works of the queer art genre - a specific area of art practice which depicts queer imagery, emerging from gender and identity politics in USA in the 1980’s.
“I saw a lot of queer art and I was shocked! I was surprised like this is the first time that I was seeing that. I was feeling like someone was using the thing that I was hiding for twenty years, and someone is using that in my face to just you know promote their work or something like that. I was confused.”
What Shojaian was hiding for twenty years was his own sexuality. Homosexuality has remained a capital offence in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with the state imposing executions of those convicted of consensual same-sex activity. Men found guilty immediately face the death penalty, while lesbians face floggings for up to 3 convictions and execution for the fourth. In 1987 a fatwa (a legal decree issued by an Islamic scholar or leader) was issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini which legalised transexuality. Though often misinterpreted as a sign of acceptance of the transgender community, the intent of this legalization is actually rooted in government attempts to medicalize and control trans* identities and in their reckoning, homosexuality by extension. Transgender Iranians that do not undertake gender reassignment surgery face arrest if found in dress which contradicts their government-recognized gender.
It is not surprising in this context of gender and sexual violence that Shojaian was shocked to find the work of an artist boldly framing queer narratives in a Tehran gallery, something that Shojaian had taken great lengths to avoid. Shojaian was also skeptical of the artists motivations for conveying such themes given the high stakes for the artist and the gallery, “I came back to university after seeing this exhibition and I just was talking to my professor and I said, ‘They cannot use this, they don’t have the right to use this, it’s a very personal thing, a lot of people are suffering because of that - and then they are just doing this [queer] art’. And my professor said ‘Why are you like this, why not, they are everywhere, they have their flag their rights, their NGO’s, what do we have in Iran? we have to talk about this subject. Please stop the censorship, we are censored enough by the government, buy society, don’t do it to yourself.’”
Encouraged by his university professor, Shojaian began to explore his queer art practice, pursue queer themes and narratives, and confront something which he had intentionally avoided but now found comfort in.
Shojaian describes his first series in the queer art genre as an expression of his own queer identity in which he explored the dualities between the public and private selves. Shojaian describes the process of crating this series as a meditative experience accentuating every stroke of hair and every detail in the series aptly titled Middlesex. “With each detail, I was thinking about myself, I was starting to be in peace with my character, with my identity. I remembered those days when I was a child and how I was enjoying wearing the high heels of my mum and just walking the corridor and the sound of these high heels, and you know, this was for me a kind of returning to the unconscious part of my memories.”
Who will talk about this, who will write about all this suffering that we are seeing?
For Shojaian’s penultimate graduate work the 'Hexagon Series’, Shojaian continued to go deeper into his personal experience in Iran as a gay man. Capturing moments of tangled embraces, at first blush the tableau of paintings belie the violence within. The Pentagon and Hexagon Series depicts the final moments of life for Shojaian’s friend, who was brutally murdered in his home during his final year of university.
“Somebody killed one of our friends, in their house. He had a sex date, and he got a random guy from the subway and took him to his home, just to have sex, and the guy he turned out as a Jihadi and he was not even Iranian. So between the sex he killed the guy with his shirt”.
What disturbed Shojaian most about the attack was not the fear of it happening to anyone, himself or any one if his queer friends, it was the aftermath of the murder. “The guy was living with his sister in Tehran, the family they were living in a small city north of Tehran. The sister didn’t tell his mother why he died so as to not [reveal] that he was gay. They said he had a heart attack. They didn’t even ask the police to follow-up because they didn’t want people to start talking and then [for the parents] to discover that their son was gay. Imagine… who will talk about this, who is gonna write about all this suffering that we are seeing. It’s so sad, it’s so hard. So I decided to do a project about it.”
The individual panels in the ‘Hexagon Series’ (above) can easily be interpreted as a game, something less sinister than reality. Shojaian intentionally sought to introduce the theme to the viewer in this way, “I believe to be to have any effect on society to be accepted you should show the part that is easy to digest for society. Always we are trying to show the harsh and sexual thing about LGBT, and definitely people are going to refuse it. But we are not just sexual beings, we have a lot of emotions that people usually don’t see it… We don’t carry the hands of each other in the street, we don’t kiss each other… so when it’s the time of doing a gay themed exhibition, just showing the sexual contact is not enough, it’s not just that that we are…”.
I came here for freedom
Shojaian knew he could not continue his creative work in Iran, where his first series on queer art remained un-exhibited. With movement to the US or Europe limited by sanctions, Shojaian looked closer to home for freedom and saw Lebanon as the most enabling opportunity in the region for him to continue developing his work and identity.
Shojaian’s professor led him to connect with Antoine Haddad, owner and Director of Art Lab Beirut - a gallery committed to providing space for artists pushing the boundaries of conventional conservative modern art in Lebanon. On meeting Shojaian and recognizing his talent, Haddad invited Shojaian to Beirut and instructed him to bring all of his work for solo exhibition.
Lebanon is one of most tolerant countries in the Middle Eastern region in terms of acceptance and protections for gender and sexually diverse people. There is no death penalty and tolerance toward the community has grown over the past twenty years since the LGBT+ movement has been increasingly visible in the country. Although a number of laws criminalizing homosexuality remain on the books (article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code states that "sexual intercourse contrary to nature" is punishable for up to one year in prison), successful prosecutions are rare. Lebanon is also the first Middle Eastern country to host Pride week yet there have been recent small setbacks in the movement, with the cancelling of in Beirut Pride and the arrest of organizer Hadi Damien this year on grounds of the intent to incite immorality. Clearly there are still remaining challenges for the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon, but at least many feel able to live openly queer among the hip bars and streets of Beirut.
Whilst writing his artists written statement describing his body of work for his first show, the mass shooting at a queer nightclub in Orlando, Florida, covered the news. “I was reading the news and I read that one of the fathers (of the deceased) refused the body of his son when he realized that he was gay. Even in the countries where they have all the freedom, there is a hate to kill you just because of your identity. There is a father that will refuse you because of your identity, and there is a lover who is still alive and is seeing this, suffering. What if it would happen to me and I was refused by my family? So I did three more pieces and I added these three pieces to this series. Which is a self portrait re-living the story of Orlando. These three pieces are showing those moments, with the dead person, (they) are showing that suffering.”
It is at the time of his first solo exhibition in Beirut that Shojaian was also invited to show a selection of his work in Tehran by his former professor, it was to be his second group exhibition in Iran and now doing so as a resident of Lebanon.
“People were surprised that it exhibited in Tehran. There were a group of German tourists in Tehran and they saw it and they said ‘Are you not afraid?’ and I said, ‘This is the responsibility of an artist, to not be afraid, to be provocative, to talk.’ They wrote in the notebook of the gallery, ‘Continue to be brave.’ It was what I wanted to hear, that I was doing something. So I was happy about it, because in Tehran when I had the exhibition, even guys that were not into art they were interested to attend the opening because they know that (this work) is related to their story also.”
The perfect moment
Nothing is staged in Shojaian’s work. It captures pure emotion. Just as a writer documents their memories, Shojaian is guided by a desire to preserve these memories through his paintings. While all of Shojaian’s pieces contain and conjure extremely personal moments and memories, they also pay tribute to queer artists and their art that preceded and inspired him. It is intentional that the subjects and subtext of his work steer away from the hyper sexual framing of queer bodies, providing space for a representation of diverse queer bodies and the storytelling of their narratives through the depiction of often ordinary or unspoken tender moments.
Continuing in the vein of challenging masculine norms in the Middle East, is ‘The Perfect Moment’ a break-out piece for Shojaian which put his name on the map as an artist to watch in Lebanon even before its premiere at the 2017 Beirut Art Fair. As the basis for his piece, Shojaian modeled the artwork of US artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic photograph titled ‘Two Men Dancing (1984)’. Shojaian took the nod to Mapplethorpe’s pioneering work in the US at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, and borrowed the name of Mapplethorpe’s final exhibition - a retrospective also titled ‘The Perfect Moment’.
A sensation in Beirut, even before its completion, Shojaian began by painting his reimagining of Mapplethorpe’s dancers in public view, behind ArtLab’s expansive street-facing windows. In part performance art, the work captured unlikely patrons and captivated people passing by. As the image of two men embracing became increasingly visible in the work he was constructing , the response ranged from the curious to the emotional. Even construction workers who would not normally venture into gallery spaces, were now stopping to watch Shojaian paint, “It was a perfect thing to have a dialogue with everyone as an artist. It’s not just people that they go to museums or galleries, it’s everyone. This work is for everyone.” One woman was moved to tears upon seeing the vision of two men embracing, “I was working on the piece, and she came up to me and hugged me and then she cried and said ‘I’m so happy that you are here.’”
Though Beirut is a multi-cultural hub, it is not representative of the overall social conservatism of the country. There are significant social barriers to openly identifying as part of the LGBT community, particularly outside of the capital where there is greater family pressure to get married or not to “shame” families by coming out. A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 18 percent of Lebanese people believe homosexuality should be accepted by society and though more open that Iran, the queer community in Lebanon are still engaged in the struggle for space and voice. The immense outpouring of support for Shojaian’s piece is illustrative of the desire for Lebanon’s queer community to see their lives reflected back to them in public view and on canvas.
“Every day I was working until midnight. My friends said, ‘Aren’t you afraid if you are walking to home that some homophobe or hater do something to you?, And I say, ‘No this is a part of the art.’ I always have this image of Andy Warhol on the cover of the magazine with the cuts on his body after being beaten, and I thought, this is the responsibility of the artist.”
“Mapplethorpe wanted to do his final exhibition in 1989, and he died at the age of 42 because of AIDS and he was sick as much that he could not attend to his final exhibition. And his wish was for… his wish was to become famous enough before he died. So people knowing these things, when he did his final exhibition, ‘The Perfect Moment', they protested in Washington DC so the government closed this exhibition. With this piece I was thinking, the same thing is happening here [the Middle East] to us much later in history.”
Shojaian’s vision with the work was to capture and capitalize on the diversity of the crowd that Beirut Art Fair could offer, to engage in a direct dialogue on queer life in the region, but at the same time he was cognizant of potential critique that may be directed to his work as an Iranian — an outsider in Lebanon. Shojaian engaged ‘Mo’ Khansa, a well-known Lebanese contemporary dancer who explores queer identity through his own performance, to collaborate with him as the subject of the portrait. In featuring himself in a portrait of embrace with Khansa (Lebanese), and himself (Iranian), Shojaian intentionally constructed a dialogue of modern Middle Eastern narrative of queerness and masculinities. “I didn’t want for them to find me as an Iranian artist that is talking about this country, no, we are talking about all the region.”
Breaking open the unspoken taboo of queer love and life in the Middle East world on canvas, Shojaian’s piece challenges hegemonic patriarchal concepts of masculinity and subverts the discourses of heteronormative male sexuality in the region. This has become a common theme and definitive characteristic of Shojaians works in that they reflect affection, intimacy and companionship between his subject or subjects.
Challenging the ideals of manhood and masculinities in the Middle East, ‘The Perfect Moment’ both agitated and resonated with the ArtFair crowd, just as Shojaian had hoped. Shojaian says his greatest achievement of his debut ArtFair came in the reaction to his piece and the message he was hoping to deliver by depicting what was once seen as an impossible image, “The Minister of Interior came to Beirut Art Fair, and he was just walking between the stands and when he reached to our stand he stopped. The first thing that he said was ‘Moustahil!’, which means ‘Impossible!'. He was shocked with what he is seeing. This was the greatest thing that happened, to deliver this message.”
Queerness in Middle Eastern art was not always so taboo. Part of Shojaian’s art practice attempts to draw his audience back to a bygone time, to serve a reminder that there is a queer Middle Eastern history which has been intentionally hidden, a history that need be returned to, to move towards a celebration of queer Middle Eastern culture today.
In the series ‘Sweet Blasphemy’, Shojaian ties his work to that of the great Persian poet Shams, by referencing The Forty Rules of Love. Many believe the Forty Rules of Love was Shams’ love letter to fellow Persian poet Rumi, with whom he shared an intimate same-sex relationship — the work of both poets reference each other as their ‘beloved’.
“I wanted it to show the real beauty, I wanted to show the what I see as a painter, I wanted them to see what I know and what I saw in real life, the beauty of the mans body. A lot of people ask me why I always draw men and I wanted to show them why.” To achieve this, Shojaian’s work invites us to look at the beauty of the male form through the male gaze. Simultaneously, the work invites the audience to look backwards in Middle Eastern history, resurfacing by referencing those same-sex sexual and emotional relationships which were once widely accepted and reflected in classic Persian literature — as is captured in the work of Rumi and Shams.
Presence and absence
Despite gaining a significant following in Beirut and beyond, Lebanon’s old arts establishment is not yet ready for queer art to occupy front and centre the still conservative walls of its institutions. A recent large scale work which Shojaian painstakingly undertook snubbed for exhibition in the prestigious Sursock Museum Biennial. Many had pegged Shojaian to not only exhibit at the Sursock but also believed he would be a serious contender for the highest award of the show, which rewarded the winning artist with their work being admired into the museums permanent collection. Instead, Shojaian chose to show his piece originality intended for the Sursock ‘Hamed Sinno et un de ses Frères’, for the 2018 Beirut Art Fair.
Modeled on the fifteenth century painting depicting the pregnancy of Gabrielle d’Estrées — d’Estrées reclines in a bathtub with her sister pinching her nipple, in a sign of the impending motherhood while Gabrielle holds the ring of Henry of France, father of her soon to be child. The work features Hamed Sinno and openly gay man and prominent lead singer of Lebanon’s wildly popular beloved band Mashrou’ Leila. Shojaian uses the composition of the ‘Gabrielle d’Estrées et une des ses sœurs’ to portray the arrests of Mashrou’ Leila concert goers in Cairo on 22 September 2017, for waving the rainbow flag in support for the LGBTQ community during the bands performance. Shojaian incorporates additional symbolism such as the tree to represent tolerance, the ankh for immortality and the water fountain for its transformational properties, more broadly commenting on the governmental intolerance to the LGBT+ community prevalent in most Middle Eastern countries.
Despite the Sursock Museum rebuff, Shojaian continues to develop and exhibit his queer art. Completing his originally intended entry for Beirut Art fair this year on the eve of his birthday - somewhat of a tradition for Shojaian “to give a present to myself” he muses.
“On the day of the photoshoot (for the art fair painting) there model did not show up.It’s the day of the photoshoot, I was alone, and I didn’t have time to do anything else. So I said, it has meaning, maybe I will do it as a self portrait and I’m going to show the absence.”
Shojaian’s fateful self portrait pays homage to queer histories weaving them through his own, that of Lebanon, and the US gay rights movement who’s achievements and setbacks have rippled through the global queer community.
The piece titled ‘The Mirror’ features Shojaian, a self-portrait capturing the moment in which a lover is left behind. Barefoot in his home, his moment of pain is reflected in the mirror —which is the work of art we are peering into. It is a portrait of the presence of absence, two cups linger on the mantle, the piano — a symbol of Shojaian’s childhood dreams to play, yet to be fulfilled in his 30th year. Photographs crowd the corners of the mirror, nodding to Lebanon’s queer history that has been rendered invisible. “This photo (two women kissing) it is from a photo studio in Saida, it is 1958. Beirut art fair this year, the focus is photography, so I am showing the piece that is going to be absent in the main collection. The picture of these two women. This studio (Shehrazade studio) has a lot of these same sex photo photographs. I am asking through my work, “what happened to that freedom”. It’s showing what we had in the past, and what the goals are as heroes of us in the Middle East, one day we will have that experience, more power to have our art.”
There are photos of Harvey Milk, of Shojaian’s premiere Art fair piece ‘The Perfect Moment’ and another of him in military uniform, a token of his compulsory service in Iran’s military. “This photo is of my military service, it was as important period in my life, it was 2 years and it was the only time that I decided to do a suicide - even I went to the rooftop, just I was scared, and I am happy that I didn’t jump. But It could have removed all of these things - whatever could happen here.”
At the same time as being important to reflect his military services and those dark years in his life as a gay man unable to be open at all, especially not in the army, there is also a reference to what is happening in Lebanon today in regard to gay men in military service, “This year, we found out that there were two guys in the army, and they found out that they had sex. It was a big issue, so I am speaking about that also with this image.”
As an Iranian émigré in Beirut, Shojaian uniquely bridges the past and present in Islamic Republic and the Middle East, challenging and making space for non-heteronormative masculine identities. Reflecting on the queer history of the region, the present context, and his own experiences, Shojaian joins a growing collective of queer artists in Beirut constructing and representing queer narratives from the Middle East region.
Although Lebanon has provided a somewhat safe space for Shojaian and these artists, the queer community in Lebanon is still locked in an ongoing struggle for space and visibility. Artists such as ‘Mo’ Khansa, Hamed Sinno, Mounir Abdallah and organizations that provide sanctuary for queer artists such as ‘Haven for Artists’, are all using their arts practice as a tool of both queer resistance and healing in Lebanon.
As Shojaian so eloquently captures in his works, it is not just the story of one man that we see when we look into the queer art in the region, it is the story of all of the community. The Middle East has a queer history that aches to be seen, to pull the past into the present. Reflecting on the transformative power of queer art and artists the artists committed to it in the Middle East, Shojaian believes the words of John Berger best sums up the responsibility the artist, “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.”.
Words by Alexis Stergakis (she/her/they/them), digital media producer and founder of Queer Here. Twitter @lexistergakis
Editorial review by Ben Kasstan (he/him), Co-Editor at Queer Here. Ben is a social and medical anthropologist, and activist around sexual and reproductive health rights and is currently based in the UK. Find Ben on twitter at @kasstanb