Muhamad Arabi, Mahmoud el Zohbi, 1950, gelatin silver print, 3 1/8 × 5 1/8".

Muhamad Arabi, Mahmoud el Zohbi, 1950, gelatin silver print, 3 1/8 × 5 1/8".

“The Arab Nude”

Muhamad Arabi, Mahmoud el Zohbi, 1950, gelatin silver print, 3 1/8 × 5 1/8".

THE SUMMER OF 2016 was not a particularly auspicious time in the Arab world for art deemed sexually explicit. It was in many ways a terrible season all over the world, marked by intense spasms of violence. It was also a summer when the strain of living in close proximity to so many grueling conflicts and situations (the protracted wars in Syria and Iraq; a revanchist military dictatorship in Egypt; an unrelenting refugee crisis sending men, women, and children to their deaths on the Mediterranean Sea; a violent coup attempt and crackdown in Turkey; and the hyperconservative, medieval ideologies of various militant groups) began to show in some of the more tolerant corners of the region. Until then, the area of overlap in the Venn diagram of contemporary art and political activism had remained a safe haven for transgressive ways of being.

In July, the activist Ahmed Ben Amor, who had been leading a very public battle to decriminalize homosexuality in Tunisia, swallowed a fistful of pills and survived. A few weeks earlier, the dancer Hassan Rabeh, a Palestinian from Damascus who had been living in Beirut as a Syrian refugee, threw himself off the balcony of a seventh-floor apartment and died. A United Nations report found that suicide had crossed the minds of more than 40 percent of young Syrians in Lebanon, a segment of the population, like so many others, with limited access to decent jobs, mobility, political participation, and sexual freedom. In interviews and in passing, artists from across the region spoke of exhaustion while explaining the measures they were taking to carry on with their day-to-day lives, including clearing their phones of social-media content, especially images that could be easily misconstrued by the authorities.

And yet, in the midst of this grim environment, nothing if not hostile to unconventional or irreligious bodies, was an audacious exhibition of artworks and artifacts exploring the many facets of the nude: male, female, shy, brazen, erotic, academic—and all of them defined in one way or another as Arab, made by artists working primarily in the first half of the twentieth century in countries spanning Algeria to Iraq. Jointly hosted by the American University of Beirut’s off-campus Rose and Shaheen Saleeby Museum for the study of modern art and by AUB’s on-campus gallery for contemporary projects, the show featured a vast display of media, from romance novels to political cartoons. A cascade of naked bodies spilled through the two venues, including depictions of wives, lovers, muses, prostitutes, models, nudists, quasi-biblical and mythological figures, a little boy standing on a pedestal to show off his penis, nymphs, bathers, and Orientalist odalisques alongside actual statuary, paintings of statuary, and—in an anonymous 1920s photograph of a Tutankhamun-inspired sculpture by the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar, printed on canvas and stretched on a stand-alone wooden frame placed in the middle of the on-campus exhibition space—a photograph of an artwork imitating ancient statuary, presented as statuary itself.

This was no exaltation of the flesh, and nothing was prurient. The provocations of the exhibition were many, but all—admirably—were on the level of academic scholarship and curatorial thought, with the unabashedly irreverent gestures of the latter animating the density of the former and freeing the many subjects at play from their disciplinary constraints. Organized by Octavian Esanu, a Moldovan artist and the curator of the AUB Art Galleries, and Kirsten Scheid, a professor of anthropology at AUB, “The Arab Nude” was bold in its location and necessary in its timing, given that the appetites of the market for modern and contemporary art in the Arab world have wholly surpassed the available scholarship. (There are no credible or definitive textbooks covering recent Middle Eastern art—only the sales catalogues of auction houses and a slew of coffee-table tomes.) The exhibition was also a fine example of what can happen when an artist and an anthropologist meet to construct a multifaceted argument in the field of art history, testing out their ideas before an audience in an institutional space rather than—or in addition to—a text.

“The Arab Nude” was thus equally ambitious and unorthodox. From Esanu came deft curatorial moves: positioning the photograph of the Mokhtar sculpture as sculpture; putting an undated terra-cotta sculpture by Leon Mouradoff on a pile of bubble wrap, facing a tight, empty corner like a disobedient child; and hanging precious paintings and photocopies in somehow coherent thematic clusters. Esanu also placed an untitled 1930 canvas by Omar Onsi in a ramshackle frame on a viselike, waist-high white plinth, so viewers could circle it and see the two very different nudes painted on either side, one demure and dark-haired, eyes askance, beside a sheet or a window; the other more traditionally goddess-like, facing yet another wall-mounted Onsi canvas of a bold and exuberant nude with her body arched back on a rock by the sea. From Scheid, meanwhile, came winning oppositions: Onsi’s À l’exposition (better known as “Women at the Exhibition”), 1932, across from a handful of early canvases by Saloua Raouda Choucair, including Sculptor Destroys Realism, 1943, and Subhan al-Khaliq, 1949, in which women counter the male gaze and strike back at the depictions by men of their naked, vulnerable, or bombastic bodies. Scheid included a reproduction of a nude, Au crépuscule (At Dusk),ca. 1905, by Moustapha Farroukh’s mentor Paul Émile Chabas, the French painter. Like a riposte, she paired this with a copy of a drawing by Farroukh, Souvenir de l’exposition (1933–34), 1934, showing a peasant couple—she in a head scarf, he in a fez—standing in an exhibition, gaping at the original Chabas. Scheid also deployed archival materials to explore the ways in which the nude—as a specific subject of fine art imported to the Ottoman Empire from Europe—and nudity more generally figured in public discourse in the early twentieth century as a political, sociological, and (in the case of Lebanon’s long-forgotten nudist colonies) ideological concept.

On its most basic level, the aim of “The Arab Nude” was to dispel a series of stubbornly persistent myths: to show that artists in the region were making and showing nudes as early as the nineteenth century, and that figurative representation was not an issue among Muslim artists or in Muslim societies despite the narrative of the religion’s total iconoclasm. (A subtheme of the exhibition on the Muslim Scouts—a movement much like the Boy Scouts in America, which, according to Esanu and Scheid, borrowed ideas about self-reliance, adaptability, and strictly heterosexual masculinity from the British invasion of South Africa and applied them to a program of activities for young men and boys, including the drawing of nudes—was left underdeveloped.) Several layers down, Esanu and Scheid also set out to illustrate the ways in which the adoption of the nude became a modernizing tool and in which the practice of art in a volatile moment brought about actual social and political change. The exhibition was deliberately if subtly poised between notions of al-nahda, the so-called Arab awakening or renaissance of the early twentieth century, known more broadly as a literary phenomenon, and the swirl of half-formed ideas scattered across the region in the past six years via events of the ill-fated Arab Spring. As such, its intentions clearly outstripped its resources and, perhaps more significantly, exposed other institutions’ lack of trust for the oldest university in the region (AUB was established in 1866). In the broader cultural ecosystem of the Middle East (and its diasporas), organizations that are the custodians of historically important art collections have little experience lending work to other well-intentioned organizations whose initiatives are put forth primarily for the purpose of engaging students and are meant to function, as “The Arab Nude” certainly did, as open invitations to do further and deeper research.

The palpable disconnect between what the curators wanted and what they were able to borrow provided some of the exhibition’s more whimsical moments. In several instances, Esanu and Scheid simply copied the unobtainable paintings and drawings, displaying them as cheap, obvious, almost comical reproductions. These included Marie Hadad’s Female Nude Seated on a Blue Stool, ca. 1934, which the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York wouldn’t lend; Ramses Younan’s 1939 drawing À la surface du sable (Sand, for Georges Henein), a rare example of high Egyptian Surrealism; and Farroukh’s Two Prisoners, 1929, pairing an odalisque with a caged bird, which also proved unobtainable even though the painting is thought to be located in a house just an hour’s drive from the exhibition venue.

Seemingly random stories ran like loose threads everywhere, and the exhibition’s true and lasting charms lay in drawing students in to pick them up. Some of the narratives are well documented and oft repeated. (It is said, for example, that the painter Habib Serour, Farroukh’s teacher, couldn’t find a model to pose for him in his studio, so he used his maid instead. When his wife objected and left him, he married the maid who had become his muse.) Other stories barely register above a rumor. One of the exhibition’s most surprising images—a vortex pulling in every viewer’s eye—was an enlarged photograph, printed on vinyl, showing the rounds and rolls of an enormous woman’s naked body, with breasts the size of basketballs, a flower in her hair, and bedroom eyes, with one hand behind her head, the other angled suggestively between her thighs. The original is thought to have been taken in the 1920s by a painter and doctor named Farid Haddad, and later transferred onto a large transparency, which he then projected onto canvases that would end up as pseudo-abstract paintings. His subjects were, apparently, mostly prostitutes from the old brothels of downtown Beirut. Fifteen years ago, a dozen or so of Haddad’s images entered the collection of the Arab Image Foundation. Akram Zaatari, one of the founders, had heard about them from a friend. Haddad had passed away by then, and in the story Zaatari gleaned from his family, the photographs, which had never been printed or exhibited before, were an intermediate step in a painter’s process. Was this really the case? Nothing has been written and little is known about Haddad himself. But perhaps it was there, in full view of this unknown woman’s palpable and defiant body, in the mystery of her purpose and the ambiguity surrounding the artist, that “The Arab Nude” sketched out the work yet to be done—and the wonder that is still to be found, if only just, on the margins of an increasingly dangerous and divided mainstream.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut and New York.