INTERVIEW: ART QUEER HABIBI - PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
There’s something inherently radical about portraying the queer community in Arab countries, arguably one of the most underrepresented communities in the world. The beauty of Art Queer Habibi however, is that said representation does not come by means of victimhood nor leftist political propaganda. Instead, the pseudonymous artist chooses to affectionately and unapologetically depict the daily lives of those who live in a place where most would rather they never existed.
Do you consider yourself foremost an artist or an activist, or both?
I've never considered myself an activist nor an artist. I don't even have an academic degree in painting, though I've played around with paints from a young age and I’ve always had different stories in my mind that I can recreate and make happen through paper and pencil - that's what happened to my project, ArtQueerHabibi. My sketches on LGBT in Eastern countries were collecting dust on shelves before I showed them to my friends, who encouraged me to make this project happen. I can't honestly tell about my contribution to activism, but if I'm somehow helping society by showing people's lives behind closed doors through the prism of my art, I'm really happy about it as an artist.
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about being queer in the region?
Personally, I think that the difficulty of being queer in the MENA-region is fundamentally coded in traditions and religious beliefs of the family and society. Both make queer people feel wrong and out of place.Older generations are not eager to change and do not want to accept other points of view, especially without proper education. They don't want to accept that there are LGBT people living right beside them.
There’s a hopeful essence to the way you portray Middle Eastern queer culture. It is very idealistic and romantic. In your opinion, is there a brighter future for the community in the region?
If you take certain MENA-region countries, the future certainly seems hopeful, but the journey has just started. I think the key to a romantic and idealistic society is education, open information and social awareness.
The Middle East is predominantly religious, and some might say that religion is the region’s ultimate barrier to queer inclusiveness. You often include religious symbols in the background of your illustrations. Why?
Originally when I started this project, I drew sceneries of cities in ways that made them easily recognizable by means of famous architectural buildings in the background. I've received some hateful comments about drawing mosques in my backgrounds, although I did it without any back thought. For me, they were just recognizable buildings from the region. Since then my styles, skills and vision for this project evolved and I learned to express my vision differently.
Do you ever feel like your life could be in danger due to the sensitive nature of your work?
The feeling of danger is never leaving me, not only as an anonymous artist, but also as a simple human being. I'm not open around my family or most of my friends, because I am not that brave yet.As I mentioned earlier, I've received a lot of hateful comments and inquisitions that almost made me quit ArtQueerHabibi. I even took a break from it, but then realized that I did not made this project to simply quit without a proper fight for justice, especially after seeing the impact of my project.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Middle East queers?
The biggest misconception about Middle Eastern queers is that all queer men are manly and women are girlybecause from an early age most of them see some typical strong man and fragile girl figures on TV and hear about gender strict roles in the family, but that’s not the case. Everyone has a personality, and being flamboyant, for example, is a part of that personality and vice versa.
Some people brand Beirut “the gay capital of the Middle East”. Would you agree?
I agree with that because during the past couple of years, we've seen huge progress towards making the life of LGBT easier in Lebanon - changes in the law (incrimination for being gay no longer exists) and of course the Pride event that's held for the third time in row. These are the changes that draw people to live in Beirut, because they feel secure.
Although your art incorporates a lot of local cultural references, it also seems to have an international appeal. Why do you think that is?
At first I wanted to concentrate on Lebanon, but then I enlarged the idea and decided to do sceneries of the MENA-countries where same-sex love is tabooed. My followers provide a big amount of information on these countries. I'm currently working on art related to Sudan and Kurdish people.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media for you as an artist?
Social media was a huge advantage for me - you really can't imagine how happy I am as an artist that my project found its target.I have almost 50K followers without any promotion. I did not have any strategy for it, I just went with the flow and seeing the impact of it encouraged me to go bigger. As an artist it is really an honor.
Your work is often inspired by you and your followers’ life experiences. How does that work within your creative process?
My newest art features real human beings because I got greatly inspired by their lives and realized that retelling a real-life story through my art is more important than creating a fictional one– people relate a lot more. At first, the creative mechanism you've mentioned was not that clear, but with the number of followers I have and their willingness to share their personal experiences, it got easier, although it also comes with great responsibility.
If you had one advice to give to the Middle East LGBTQI+ community, which one would it be?
It is always hard giving advice to someone without walking a mile in their shoes, but I want all of you to stay strong and be strong no matter what. All the hardship you’re going through right now will shape you as something precious and mature. Remember where you are from and don't be ashamed of it - you may be called out as brown, Muslim, Arab, strange, but your history and ethnicity will scream "We are here and we are queer and you won't erase us" in the future of our society.
What’s next for Art Queer Habibi?
Currently I'm working on a book about LGBT people of the MENA-region and their habitat. The book will tell a lot of interesting stories and will spread awareness. My other project is a fully online platform of equality, where I won't limit myself by publishing only my art, but movies, different art, interviews and much more about LGBT people of MENA-region.
INTERVIEWED BY RALPH ARIDA