Los Angeles

Soufiane Ababri, Bedwork, 2021, triptych, colored pencil and wax pastel on paper, each panel 55 1⁄2 × 39 1⁄2". From the series “Bedwork,” 2016–.

Soufiane Ababri, Bedwork, 2021, triptych, colored pencil and wax pastel on paper, each panel 55 1⁄2 × 39 1⁄2". From the series “Bedwork,” 2016–.

Soufiane Ababri

Queequeg is introduced early in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and is described, before the character ever utters a word, as a “dark complexioned chap” with a preference for rare steak. Ishmael, the novel’s famed narrator, encounters the harpooner while holing up at an inn whose proprietor has convinced him to share a large, uncomfortable bed with Queequeg, who is somewhere on the street attempting to sell his last “’balmed New Zealand head.” As night blackens, Queequeg returns to his room and there performs a quixotic ritual with a wooden statue before noticing that Ishmael is occupying his bed. By the end of their first, tense exchange, Ishmael’s horror over this strange man is transformed into something else—maybe desire?—as he reflects on the “clean and comely looking cannibal.”

Soufiane Ababri’s recent drawings for “Bunch of Queequeg,” his solo show at Praz-Delavallade, were all titled Bedwork, 2021, and were part of an eponymous ongoing series of works, begun in 2016, that the artist makes from bed. These images riff off the homoerotics of empire that exist both implicitly and explicitly in texts such as Moby-Dick, exposing the continuing collapse and reassemblage of colonial power dynamics within sex. Here, Ababri painted some of the gallery walls bright orange and decorated others with a pattern of glossy, oversize, bloodred vinyl handprints. This theatrical (and perhaps unnecessary) enframing of his roughly rendered drawings variously heightened and hampered the amalgamation of lust and violence in this presentation. In a triptych drawing, the show’s largest piece, the artist depicts himself as Queequeg (per the checklist, which featured short interpretive texts from the artist about the works). Ababri renders himself faceup in bed, naked and asleep. Lying to the left of him is Ishmael, who stares at the dozing harpooner/artist. Ishmael is tumescent under tight-fitting shorts. To Queequeg/Ababri’s right is a skewer of severed heads. It’s discomfiting stuff, but in the pictorial space between Queequeg/Ababri and Ishmael exists a visual clue as to how to read their relationship: Crossing the gutter of the second and third panels is a book contiguous in its colorways yet split in its content. The half of the volume closest to Ishmael is Moby-Dick, but on Queequeg’s side of the bed it abruptly changes into Edward Saïd’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000). These gaps between nonfiction and fiction, between the space-times of Melville, Saïd, and Ababri, are elegantly complicated by the inclusion of this hybridized tome. Ababri asks us to consider not only the literature of colonialism and its lasting effects on daily life and culture, but also colonialism’s insidious presence in even our most intimate relationships. 

For his 2019–20 show “Something New Under the Little Prince’s Body” at Dittrich & Schlechtriem in Berlin, Ababri used performance to intensify the themes evident in his drawings. For that exhibition he reimagined Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s much-lauded 1943 novel about a galactic princeling, a fable that Ababri saw as a sublimated representation of the author’s history as a French bureaucrat and sometime fighter for his country in Tarfaya, Morocco. The artist staged a performance that featured two men—one blond and white like Saint-Exupéry’s petit sovereign, and another dark-haired and brown like Ababri—who read and sang to one another, touched and danced. While no performance accompanied “Bunch of Queequeg,” the show revealed the embodied anxieties and pleasures central to narratives of colonial incursion onto the messy realities of interpersonal desire. Ababri spins out the dynamic between Ishmael and Queequeg, pointing to the lustmord that sometimes courses through male-male sexual encounters. But this revelation, which has historically sustained the work of a coterie of countercultural queer male writers, theorists, and filmmakers—from Jean Genet to Leo Bersani, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Bruce LaBruce—is given new personal resonance in Ababri’s staged encounter. One bedwork (perhaps another glancing self-portrait?) depicted a scalped brown man who, either despite his circumstance or because of it, blushes while a disembodied white hand strokes his cheek. The telephone number of Ababri’s childhood home in Morocco is written in the space above his head, along with the words land for sale in Arabic. Sex and dispossession, violence and tenderness—bedfellows all.

Andy Campbell