Qahtani: Mapping Sex in Saudi
By: Mariam Abdallah
Published Wednesday, February 1, 2012
A new daring photo exhibition in London delves into the confusing and contradictory world of sexuality in the Saudi kingdom.
Step into a very Saudi realm, one that is daring and provoking. You will be unable to conceal your astonishment when seeing “Intimate Geography,” Saudi artist Abdul Aziz Qahtani’s first ever solo exhibition, at London’s Lahd Gallery.
This stunning exhibition consists of 11 photographs through which Qahtani offers his portrayal of the Saudi human predicament. The works are carefully constructed and laid out to illustrate the scale of the contradictions that prevail, and the widening gap between body and soul, in Saudi Arabia.
Qahtani’s work relies on the shock factor to raise issues of identity crisis, gender-based discrimination, consumerism, and schizophrenia that afflict an entire society.
In one photograph, a muscular brawny naked man, wearing nothing but stockings and female accessories, stands next to a woman in a white dress, holding a whip, her face concealed by a black niqab.
In another, Qahtani reverses the roles in a society where polygamy is deemed normal. A woman stands surrounded by her three husbands, kneeling to express their submission.
The exhibit also includes a portrayal of a young woman in a burqa that reveals her bare legs, another dancing while tightly wrapped in a black abaya, a third getting a tattoo while trying to cover her face with her veil, and a fourth woman dancing ballet in her niqab on a stone bench in a London street.
The images are replete with eroticism and sexual innuendo imbued with strong cultural references that resonate in Saudi society.
Qahtani tries to lure and captivate his audience with his artistic tricks. His work reflects on the rampant confusion of Saudi society, a “sexual confusion” that is a taboo subject. He tells of Saudi men’s desire to submit to women, and women’s desire to break free of their many chains, and to assume a position of leadership and of control over men.
Qahtani describes in his work the identity crisis that afflicts his characters. They live in two geographies and two societies, one that promotes tattoos and makeup, and another that prohibits them and deems them haram (forbidden). Qahtani’s characters live in this contradiction, like the heroes of the novel Anna Karenina.
Qahtani carefully plans and lays out each shot because, for him, it has to carry a message, even if just of a cat, a street, or a backyard. Meticulous planning and design are required for the message to get across, because according to him: “we in the Middle East are misunderstood by the West on one hand, and on the other hand are subject to oppression in our lands.”
Screeching irony and violent cynicism in Qahtani’s work strikes at the core of inherited values, drawing wry smiles on the faces of his audience. His women hide behind veils while his men hide behind their own shemaghs, as though trying to avoid confrontation.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.