Middle Eastern Artists Explore the Political and Erotic in "The Uncovered Body" Exhibition in Paris

Youssef Nabil, "Natacha sleeping," 2000 (detail)
(Courtesy the Artist)

PARIS — It may seem risqué to put on a show of nudes at the Arab World Institute, especially considering the prevalence of fundamentalism in Arab countries today, but once preconceived notions are set aside it makes perfect sense. "The Uncovered Body" is an exhibition of modern and contemporary art, but the works shown are anchored in a history that began in the late-19th century when Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian painters studied in Europe and began a personal practice of the nude that they would pursue for their entire lives — most notably Georges Daoud Corm in the 1920s and Khalil Saleeby in the 1940s. Others participated in the Orientalist movement, like Mahmoud Saïd with his "Sleeping Woman" in 1933.

The exhibition, on view through July 15, was curated by the Institute's Hoda Makram-Ebeid and Philippe Cardinal. "We hope to do two things," Makram-Ebeid told ARTINFO France. "To show the Arab Middle Eastern public that there are Arabs or people of Arab origin who dare to explore this subject that has been hidden by a certain hypocrisy in the Arab world. And to show the Western public that there are artists who show, think, and act in ways other than according to the stereotypes of Arab society."

The 200 works on view were all selected from the museum's collection. The exhibition shows the liberation of artists in the second half of the 20th century and how the body can serve as a site of resistance in pictorial representation. Most of today's major Arab artists are represented, including Ghada Amer, whose paintings feature countless female figures with their legs spread, and Youssef Nabil, with his Orientalist-inspired photographs "Natacha Sleeping" and "Natacha Atlas." Humor is also plentiful, as in Zoulikha Bouabdellah's video of a belly dance performed to the Marseillaise, and Mehdi-Georges Lahlou's photograph "Mouvement décomposé," which shows the artist wearing women's clothing and performing a belly dance. Lamia Ziadé's work features female genitalia embroidered on Pop art-inflected shields. Makram-Ebeid commented on these works: "Lahlou has done a lot on this theme of dual cultural affiliation, male and female, Christian and Muslim identity. With Zoulikha, it's the theme of dual affiliation and identity. And Lamia Ziadé, well, she doesn't pull any punches!"

The grande dame of these contemporary artists is Huguette Caland, daughter of the first president of the Lebanese republic, who started painting large monochrome works that represent weirdly funny body parts in the 1960s. "Now she is 83, and she was a pioneer at the beginning of women's liberation," Makram-Ebeid said. "She dared to work on the body, nudity, and women's sexuality. With 'Checkpoint,' she focuses on a part of the body which she enlarges to the point that it can be confused with other body parts, and she questions proximity and the contact between bodies."

But the body is also political in this exhibition, and always holds a double meaning. Iraqi artist Adel Abidin's video "Ping-Pong" shows two men playing ping-pong with a naked red-headed woman in place of a net. Her milky skin is marked with red circles left by ping-pong balls as she is struck by all the missed shots. This Duchampian metaphor of a macho duel can be understood not only in terms of the oppression of women, but also as a political metaphor for the Iraq War. As Makram-Ebeid sees it, "in this ping-pong game, Abidin speaks of the dictatorship of power, be it Iraqi or American, of all forms of power that decide a people's destiny. The young woman is very pure, very pale, even pallid; her mistreated body is a metaphor for a people's suffering."

The image in Tarik Essalhi's "Abu Ghraib," however, is very direct. The sculpture depicts an Abu Ghraib prisoner as a new Saint Sebastian. Suffering is represented here with a certain realism, while it is portrayed in a more Expressionist vein in Palestinian artist Hani Zurob's blue painting of a prisoner squatting in jail, a piece based on his own incarceration in an Israeli prison. Another political work, this one in Pop tones, is Zena el-Khalil's "Beefsteak." The mixed-media work depicts three bearded men in girls' dresses, one of them holding a machine gun. It refers to "all the television images she saw as a child. From these images of war, Michael Jackson videos, and Barbie dolls, kitsch remained and got mixed together in her mind," according to Makram-Ebeid. "The world is made of contradictions, everything happens so fast — in hybrid fashion, she shows war and the levity of childhood in a kind of blur."

To see a selection of images from "The Uncovered Body," click on the slide show.

To see an excerpt from Adel Abidin's video "Ping-Pong," click on the video below:

This story originally appeared on ARTINFO France.