BRUSSELS — The 29-year-old French-Moroccan artist Mehdi-Georges Lahlou has had an eventful early career. A piece in which he projected Bible and Koran verses onto his naked body caused a scandal in Morocco without even being shown in the country (shortly before the artist's other works were displayed at the 2011 Marrakech Art Fair, local media voiced outrage over the piece, illustrating articles with images of only the Koranic part of the 2010 diptych, “Koranic Inlay”). And his installation “Cocktail or Self-Portrait in Society,” in which Lahlou’s oft-worn red high heels stand on a prayer rug, also caused some outrage.
The two works hit on several sensitive issues in Muslim culture: the prohibition on modifying one’s body, nudity, sexuality, and improper use of the Koran and religious objects. Today, the artist thinks that if he had omitted the holy verses from his penis, the controversy might have been a minor one. “Even in Morocco, many people wanted me to come back after the controversy. I’ve kept a bit of distance for now, because I don’t think I should add fuel to the fire. My thinking about my work has been a bit affected, but I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m picking it up again in a different way.”
On a Sunday afternoon in Brussels, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou arrived to meet ARTINFO France on an old scooter. He is easily recognizable from his big smile and because of his habit of depicting himself in his art — wearing a hijab with a watermelon on his head, or eating a banana with the Koran balanced on his head. He molds his body to create busts, or, in the case of “Salât, ou Autoportrait Dirigé” (“Salât, or Directed Self-Portrait”) (2011), to create nine white plaster figures in prayer position — displayed recently at the “Unlimited Bodies” exhibition at Paris’s Palais de l’Iéna.
With his loose combination of religious iconography and incongruous objects, the ambiguous humor in Lahlou’s work is often misunderstood. But his approach is never casual — rather it blurs the boundaries between personal commentary on his subjects alongside artistic thought.
“I’m not an activist shouting. I am truly respectful of religions and beliefs, except when they kill or hurt people,” Lahlou explains. “As a person, I have a political opinion, I take a position or I don’t. But in my work, I don’t want it to be like that. I want people to be in an awkward position and not know what’s happening, whether it’s humor or reality, true or false. I lean toward being stupid [in my work] because I don’t want to make people think that I am saying bad things. You can have criticisms, but that doesn’t mean that you’re against something. You can have fun with everything — but can you really have fun with everything?”
Lahlou was born in a seaside town on France’s Atlantic coast to a Muslim father, a jeweler, and a Catholic mother, a flamenco dancer. Having grown up in France and Morocco, he was raised with dual traditions that he considers rich though sometimes problematic. Though Catholicism doesn’t openly discuss the pleasures of the flesh, it does allow for nudity and religious ecstasy — “not a pleasure between flesh, but a pleasure with God,” Lahlou explains. Whereas in Islam, the body and God have no intermediary.
His series of Madonnas, “It’s More Sexy or Vierge à l’Enfant” (“It’s More Sexy or Virgin With Child”), 2010, layers mosaics from the Muslim world over paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other Old Masters. Through December 23, Lahlou’s installation “Construction Cubique ou la Pensée Confuse” (“Cubic Construction or Confused Thought”) is on view in a square in La Louvière as part of an exhibition by the Musée Ianchelevici. At the center of the cube is a Madonna, which replaces the Muslim image Lahlou had initially planned, upon request from the mayor’s office to change it in order not to offend voters.
As seems appropriate for an artist living and working in Belgium, Surrealism has helped Lahlou defuse his initial ideas of dogmatic commentary on religion and cultures. His first artwork, made in 2009, was titled “Ceci N’est Pas Une Femme Musulmane.” “Everything I create is false. The image is not real. That’s why I associate myself somewhat with Surrealism, the question of the fabulous, and the attainable utopia — but in the end it’s utopia, and therefore unattainable. In the fabulous, there is humor.” Art critic and author Christine Vuegen has called this approach “Lahloutopia.”
Lahlou’s essential poetry lies in his video performances. There, he operates between endurance and transcendence, meditation and mediation, taking advantage of his training as a dancer. The body has become his artistic tool, which in itself makes a statement beyond image and aesthetics.
In performance pieces, he’ll belly-dance in high heels while breaking teacups, as the audience throws couscous. In 2009, he walked the 18.5 miles between Mechelen and Antwerp in his signature red heels, a nine-hour journey during which his appearance in little villages brought people out of their houses. “There were old women saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re my hero, look at my heels, they’re much shorter and they hurt a lot.’ Then there were North African men who ran after me and insulted me, and other Arabs who were happy.” Lahlou repeated the performance in Venice for the 2011 Biennale.
“Having your arms in the air for seven hours — I’m telling you, at the end, you have to go see a physical therapist, your back is out,” the artist says. For the performance “Devout with the Niqab” (2011) in the south of France, he put on a niqab (a cloth with which some Muslim women veil their faces) and then kept up ecstatic movement seven hours a day for three days, in temperatures that reached 110 degrees in the sun. “There was also the problem of dehydration, of martyrdom, but what was important to me was really the question of endurance. I really question the stupidity of endurance or stupid endurance.”
The performances are brought to life through their audience, who come and go as the hours go by. “I am there, but all alone, I am no one, I am nothing,” Lahlou says. “What’s important to me are the questions that people will ask themselves while watching my work. The first time they see it, they’re charmed, they think it’s beautiful. When they leave and come back, the second time, they’re stupefied. By becoming disinterested, there’s a re-interest.” Even more striking is his “Henna, ou Hommage à Nous-Mêmes” (“Henna, or Homage to Ourselves”), for which Muslim women put him in a traditional dress and gave him henna tattoos during Ramadan, oblivious to the cameras that filmed them.
Lahlou takes inspiration both from Fluxus and the burlesque. “When Josephine Baker went out on stage, she knew that they were going to take her for an animal, but at the same time, she played with the fact that others were observing her. Then, it was the others who were the animals, it wasn’t her anymore. You play with your origins and your culture, and in the end it’s the others who find themselves in a somewhat strange position, asking themselves questions about what they are watching.”
Lahlou’s work also brings to mind feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s, such as Valie Export and Gina Pane. His cross-dressing is often erroneously and superficially read as an end in itself, or a commentary on femininity. “I worked right away on the deconstruction of the male gender,” the artist said. “That’s why I always kept my male attributes, like my beard. But I hung six and a half feet from the ground chanting poems by Ronsard, or I went to drown myself in the sea in a wedding dress. Alberto Sorbelli, Pierre Molinier, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp already made cross-dressing come alive — but what I bring to it is my Arab mug.”
Lahlou’s sculptural works have so far revolved around prayer or philosophical thought integrated into belief. “Messe pour un Corps ou Autoportrait aux Livres” (“Mass for a Body or Self-Portrait with Books,” 2010, is a headless body with skin made of fabric patterned with mosques and minarets, which sits on books beside a matching ball; “Fontaine,” 2010, is a basin of moving water where gold-leaf hands wash themselves in perpetuity; and “Sans Titre, Paradise,” 2010, consists of pairs of hands and feet made of wax emerging from a prayer rug, as if the worshiper had fallen inside. “For me, it was a perpetual prayer, but in the end not really to Allah, more to the supernatural,” the artist reflects. “Perhaps my God is the supernatural.”
Even though it represents a central element of religion, prayer remains something separate for Lahlou. “I think prayer is something magnificent. I’ve done a lot of praying, and I was a dancer and I associate it with choreography. For me, it’s really a gift of the body. When you have 150 people — on Fridays, 1,000 or more — who are doing the same motion at the same time, it’s something generous.” Although Lahlou may involuntarily cause division, the act of prayer he represented in “Salât” is activated five times a day, “in harmony with the whole world.”
By veiling himself entirely, Lahlou references Greek sculpture, but in plaster instead of marble. The multiplication of images in his most recent work, “72 Vierges” (“72 Virgins”) — “a family portrait where I am unmade” — also has a parallel in El Greco, who reproduced the same face several times in his “Assumption of the Virgin.” “Ultimately, all the figures that are reproduced, I have the impression that they are canceled out. It’s one, or nothing,” Lahlou says. “By multiplying, there is a sort of absence.”
Lahlou settled in Brussels, a new favorite city among young artists, after graduating from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nantes in 2007. He jokes that it’s because he got on the wrong road after missing a flight from Amsterdam to New York, but the real reason was a desire for change and the need to avoid the enclosed and competitive artistic atmosphere in France. “I had to stick with it or do something different. And doing something different was going away, packing my bags and coming back with my suitcases full,” he says.
Galerie Transit in Mechelen was soon interested in his work, followed by Hélene Lacharmoise’s Galerie Dix9, which currently shows his work in Paris. Paris’s Arab World Institute has been a staunch supporter, though the first institution to acquire Lahlou’s work was the regional art collection Frac Midi-Pyrénées, which purchased the first edition of “Salât.” “My first collectors were women and homosexuals,” Lahlou says. “Now it’s everybody.” His prices run from €1,700 ($2,200) and €45,000 ($58,000).
Although Brussels is more relaxed and less expensive than Paris, it’s not always easy for Lahlou to live there. “Already with all these controversies, these death threats, I’m not very calm. It’s a good place to work, but sometimes I don’t feel comfortable,” he says. “I don’t walk like all the North Africans in Molenbeek [a heavily Muslim neighborhood near the center of Brussels], I don’t act like them, I don’t dress the same way, I don’t talk about the same things. I look like them, but they can see that I am different and they don’t appreciate it. Because I can be a bit of a disruptive element.”
Lahlou plans to reduce his physical presence in his work. “There is the fear of repeating myself, even if everything I do is different. Since I am the basis of my work — I’m often the model, even if I’m not there — I get a bit tired of myself. Today, I want to think more, to be a bit less present,” he says. “But I think that I will still have things to say for 30 more years.”