Inspired by a line from an eighth century Classical Arabic poem by the great Classical poet Abu Nawas, The unbreakable rope – a new exhibition in London, aims to portray the past, present and future of sexuality and love within the Middle East as being diverse and cosmopolitan. Commissioned by the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, and being hosted by Free Word, a charity who promote free speech, the show employs 10 contemporary artists from across the globe to represent their take on the spectrum of non-heterosexual relationships in Islamic cultures, often through personal encounters. Works span painting, performance, photography and digital light installations, encompassing a variety of media to address the subject. The show, which was commissioned by Nazish Khan, the artistic director of Quilliam, and has been curated by artist and curator Rachel Maggart, and art historian and writer Harry Seymour.
“I kind of struggle with the term homosexuality, heterosexuality and LGBTQI and find them rather difficult to use when discussing the show. They are constrictive and a bit old fashioned to my mind – love, attraction and passion, can’t be compartmentalised like this when discussing them in such a wide sense. Historically they are difficult too – in certain periods of Islamic history, the upper class males would have intercourse with boy serfs and slaves, yet this wouldn’t necessarily be considered homosexual – it was more based on the passive and active roles as being portrayed as feminine and masculine. But I think the show is important because with the spread of fundamentalism amongst regions of the Middle East, non-heterosexuals are being increasingly marginalised, facing prison and death. I’m not trying to make anyone adopt my way of thinking but would love for conversations to happen, and prejudices to be abandoned. Love is one of the miracles of life and should be cultivated and celebrated.” Harry Seymour told us.
When asked about the show was curated, Harry said “It was a process between myself and my co-curator Rachel Maggart who is also a practicing artist. We didn’t really have a method, but found everyone we spoke to about the show while in its infancy would suggest names to contact and artists to look up. It sort of grew organically in this way, which I think is rather beautiful. It was being planned for about a year, during which we would contact artists and galleries, begin making commissions and seeking out what work was available. We were lucky to find artists so willing to work with us, who not only addressed the themes of the show, but made work that was great in its own right. It was a fortunate byproduct that the shortlist of works was such a spectrum of mediums and approaches.”
When asked about her work in the show, co-curator Rachel Maggart told us “Double Exposure is a piece about media exploitation and image ownership. My process involves re-appropriating iconic or stereotypical imagery before adding foreign elements to, manipulating and juxtaposing it in absurd ways. This treatment I hope divests it of any seamless transitions and exposes its internal mechanics – the networks and systems at play underneath. So the viewer can then see herself looking, and there is not an opaque narrative but context. As for the symbolism in my picture, I wanted to represent policing of foulplay during Ramadan. So I incorporated icons of a night sky, twinkling stars and a crescent moon. A security camera is the Middle East Eye (Middle East Eye a blog that re-published the article). Classical beauty and lustful sex are encapsulated in the clipped torso and legs, translucent porcelain skin tainted by a pole and platform heels. The figure is both carnal and spiritual, a stock image of a showgirl and an Angel. Zipped-up hymens and gravity-defying sexual freedom thrive in a codependent relationship. Double Exposure illustrates that the flipside of Islamic fantasy (seventy-two virgins in heaven) could be a seedy gentleman’s club.” As both an artist and curator, Rachel clearly exhibits a keen eye for the interplay between image and metaphor – the influence of her narrative weaving through multidisciplinary arts, is clear throughout the show.
“As an art historian, the recent troubling destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East by radical Islamic factions breaks my heart. I wanted this show to in one way be act of defiance against that. I would like to think that creativity is unstoppable and these destroyed artifacts live on through contemporary art’s respect to tradition. To me it’s a linear concept; the Temple of Bel in Palmyra may have been demolished and its physicality has long gone, but its allure is something that no one can take away, and I like to think that if its creators, these amazing architects, designers and artists, knew their work was gone but had inspired people thousands of years later to create their own art, stemmed from these traditions, they wouldn’t be too upset. It proves the real power of creativity and ideas.” Harry added.
Photographer Ibi Ibrahim was asked to show a series of nine photographs entitled Sans Toi that depict the artist in a series of poses suggesting morning for a love one. The images are ambiguous if its yearning for a temporarily departed partner, or the sadness as the end of a relationship – yet they’re extremely tender and relatable –heartbreak is something everyone is vulnerable to regardless of who they love.
Iranian artist Farah Ossouli has presented two works that represent the historical traditions of Islamic art – delicate miniature work depicting courting couples within architectural settings. Inspired by Sufi mystic poetry, the works allude to a splendour of forgotten love in Islamic traditions.
Pakistani born Faiza Butt was commissioned to create a new piece from her poetic light box series – here she has taken the poem that inspired the show and recreated it in a font, which she constructed from photographs of contemporary Middle Eastern jewellery. The lustrous gold speaks of an inter-faith desire for the divine in both religion and courtship. The mountainous setting makes the text appear ethereal – the font appears as a heavenly illusion. Faiza’s work is known for its vibrancy, sexual nature and depictions of cultures coming together to create beauty. Always energetic, her luscious images are bejewelled, celebratory and passionate about love in all its facets.
Sarah Maple has presented two paintings, both tackling issues of her identity as a child of a Muslim mother and Christian father. One depicts her wearing her mother’s headscarf, with the breast of Kate Moss affixed to her body. It raises questions of how each culture reacts to traditional ideas and contemporary images of beauty, yet rather than being something that is seen as causing conflict, Sarah suggests a beauty in the synergy. The second work is another self portrait of her wearing Muslim traditional dress, but with the words “God is a feminist” written across the canvas. The work addresses the suggests that even in this highly patriarchal society, God’s love for all is equal and that love, beauty and the exaltation of each other is something not defined by gender. To accompany Sarah’s work, a sound piece has been created by the audio-artist duo Alison Butler and Shane Winter. The American composers have collaborated in this special commission entitled Moon, which reworks various audio recordings, including social conscience art pieces from San Francisco in the 1960s, to recreate the violence done to oppressed voices. The work addresses the idea of the moon as a symbol of femininity, fertility and divinity across faiths. Just as the moon elicits a voyeuristic gaze, the sound-scape questions acceptance of gender and love through a celestial glow.
Rachel Maggart has presented a work that addresses the idea of religion’s power for both physical and moral surveillance. Using both Eastern and Western iconography, an imaginary world is constructed in which notions of what is and isn’t forbidden collides in a cosmos like beauty. The painting elucidates ideas of context being the key, and highlights the role of symbols as a moral compass, all while forcing the viewer to act as a sometimes uncomfortable, but frank and necessary voyeur.
Iranian artist Soody Sharifi presents two works from her Maxiature series. Exploding the traditions of Persian miniature painting, these works collage elements of traditional Islamic courtship, with contemporary figures. Featuring young women on mobile phones and young men driving fashionable convertibles, the works address gender roles in courtship, especially when mixed with modern technology and ideas of public versus private space in a society that defines, controls and restricts the mixing of genders, especially with regards to relationships.
British photographer Lisa Bretherick presents both photo and video installations that depict the memorial of a young Muslim doctor in London who took his own life after being outed as a homosexual to his family. The works were taken at a ceremony hosted by his partner and are both celebratory yet extremely touching in their sadness. They tell a very real narrative of how these issues can affect people so strongly and highlight the importance of the show in helping promote acceptance.
A performance piece by the Kuwaiti born Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort, that was displayed at the opening, was a specially commissioned work that takes Tareq’s in depth knowledge of the Qur’an and research on themes of sexuality within Islam, and elucidates how beauty is something within Islam is both exalted yet constricting. The work is represented in the show by photos of the artist in traditional Islamic clothing in languishing poses that were often adopted historically as an underground homoerotic code, and a drawing on paper that was crated by mixing pigment with the moisture from the last kiss shared between the artist and his loved one.
The unbreakable rope is a show that raises extremely important questions – its long overdue that ideas of love within Islam are raised and discussed – both Eastern and Western ideas need to challenged to create a society where people can be free to be themselves, and love each other openly. The show proves that at times, Islamic courtship has been bohemian and colourful. These exquisite works, which have been tenderly curated to create visual allusions to a proud history of love and acceptance, create a cue for people to come together and embrace each other regardless of their sexuality or religion.
By Toby Mellors
The unbreakable rope: an exploration of sexuality in Islam, Free Word Centre, 60 Faringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA. 10 March – 8 June 2016, Monday – Friday 9am – 9pm. Admission Free.