Arab and Coming Out in Art That Speaks Up

Several gay or lesbian artists working in both the West and in the Middle East said they did not wish to be interviewed for this article.

Among those in the 2015 Leslie-Lohman exhibit was the Lebanese artist Omar Mismar. Within the Arab world, Mr. Mismar said, Lebanon is viewed as “allowing a space for out gay artists and creators to exist, but at the same time things are never really guaranteed.” Laws criminalizing homosexual acts are still in effect, with arbitrary enforcement.

His installation, “The Man Who Waited for a Kiss,” consisted of murky, surveillance-style photographs of himself interacting with men he met in the United States, through Craigslist, Grindr and Scruff. He created the project while pursuing a double master’s degree, in fine arts and visual and critical studies, at the California College of the Arts, as an effort to show “what gay men can do in other cities.”

Mr. Mismar, 31, teaches at the American University of Beirut and the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, which allows him exceptional maneuverability. Yet none of his gay-identified work has been exhibited in Lebanon. A work called “A Hands Routine” maps the places he and his boyfriend felt safe holding hands while in a car roaming the streets of Beirut. “Holding hands becomes a risk, a secret act, fun for being dangerous,” he wrote in an introduction to the artwork, made of graphs that resemble sheets of music.

Location can mitigate fear, and such exhibitions flourish in the gay mecca of San Francisco. Jamil Hellu, 41, an artist there, was born in Brazil to a Syrian father and Paraguayan mother, moving to the United States in 1996.


“I will not find this image beautiful” is a 2015 work by Omar Mismar. The artist incorporated computer images of the Israeli bombings of Gaza, struck by the rhythm of the smoke plumes

He has merged his gay and Arab identities in provocative, sexually-charged art incorporating a single stereotype: the bear, a large, sometimes overweight, hirsute man.

“Bears are signifiers for gay culture and signifiers for Arab culture,” Mr. Hellu explained. His installations include photographic self-portraits, along with black and white line drawings of himself in jockstraps and kaffiyehs, the Middle Eastern male head scarf. “There is not only a duality, but a tension,” he said. “My work is thinking about that tension, to explore that conflict.”

Mr. Hellu says that many L.G.B.T. Arabs eschew self-identifying. “It is easier not to have labels. The label will hurt you, publicly and even privately.”

Many Arabs and Muslims who see his work tell him he is brave. “My experiences have been very positive so far,” he said. “It would be a very different story if I brought this work to Turkey or showed this work in Qatar.” Mr. Hellu, along with other Arab and South Asian artists, will participate in San Francisco’s L.G.B.T.-focused “The Third Muslim” exhibit beginning Jan. 25 at the SOMArts gallery.

Among the most extensively exhibited gay artists of Arab descent is half of one of the world’s most famous power couples: the painter and installation artist Jwan Yosef, fiancé to singer Ricky Martin. Raised in Sweden by Syrian parents in a mixed Christian and Muslim household, Mr. Yosef has exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, though never in the Middle East. In an email, he said he includes Arab themes in his work, but “the immediate presentation of the work would be more Germanic. This duality also made the work more accepted.” Sexual imagery is coyly suggested: One 2014 work, “Twin Towers,” views a man’s covered crotch between his bent legs.

Mejdulene Shomali, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that anti-Arab racism and Orientalist views of the Arab world have combined to create opinions of a community as backward, yet highly sexualized. The result has often been self-censorship by L.G.B.T. artists, but Dr. Shomali said that is changing, with gay male Arab artists, in particular, challenging old viewpoints, and often finding a welcome reception.

Audiences, she said, are more interested in hearing gay men’s stories. Exhibitions like “American Landscape” answer the question “will Arab and Arab American audiences be open to seeing and including queer folks as part of their culture — and answering with a resounding yes.”

For his part, Mr. Akmon, of the Arab American National Museum, said he believed such shows can touch a broad range of viewers, showing them the diversity and complexity of Arabs in America.

“People have such a small perception of who we are,” Mr. Akmon said. “It’s reductive. We’re like everybody else. We’re complex, we’re diverse. Maybe even sometimes contradictory.”

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