Queering archives of photography

Imperialism, homoeroticism and desire in Middle Eastern contemporary art

  • Andrew Gayed
Keywords: photography, Middle East, contemporary art, Islamicate, archives, gender, homosexuality, queer, visual culture, postcolonial


In this article, I historicize same-sex desire in the Middle East, across North Africa, and the regions formerly a part of the Ottoman Empire, to better investigate Middle Eastern contemporary art and its relationship to colonial discourses on gender that had an impact on same-sex desire. I begin by historicizing European and colonial encounters in the Middle East at the turn of the century, illustrating the effect Victorian sensibilities had on pre-modern homosociality and same-sex desire in the Middle East. This history of changing sexual discourse is later illustrated through European colonial photographs in the Middle East that depict homoeroticism, with a primary focus on European travellers who photographed local young men. I analyse the aesthetics of these photographic archives in relation to contemporary drawings by Iranian artist Ebrin Bagheri, as a way of investigating the modernist production of heterosexuality and the erasure of local gender norms. In analysing the art of a queer diasporic subject, I focus on the ways in which Bagheri’s contemporary drawings bring together traces of pre-modern same-sex desire to elucidate that the colonial hangovers of the colonized local sexual scripts are still alive, and deeply embedded within diaspora consciousness. The double bind that the queer diasporic subject often faces can be linked to these after-effects and tensions, and the study of visual art and culture illustrates the specific ways these sexual scripts are both manifested and negotiated by non-Western subjects in the West. Importantly, this analysis is meant to challenge the Eurocentrism of dominant queer theory and gay scholarship by focusing on alternative sexual discourses that are not reducible to hegemonic Euro-American notions of gay identity. My analysis of historic colonial encounters in relation to contemporary diasporic art becomes another logic used to challenge both area-studies scholarship that remains too nation-centric, and the homogeneity of ‘global gay identity’, by addressing how colonial encounters have been transformed and negotiated in local sites.