Arab and Coming Out in Art That Speaks Up

Nabil Mousa with his painting “Burka #16.” Mr. Mousa took what he saw as a symbol of women’s oppression and applied it to himself as a gay artist. Credit Salamatina Gallery; Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

DEARBORN, Mich. — Nabil Mousa’s first solo art exhibition was a joyous occasion, but it still brought tears to his eyes when he introduced his husband to the audience.

Mr. Mousa was born in Syria and immigrated to the United States with his conservative Christian parents. In 2000, when he came out, they soon cut off contact and disowned him.

Now, he was melding his two identities — gay and Arab — in a show of paintings here. And what was more surprising was where his work was being displayed: the Arab American National Museum, which was focusing for the first time on a gay artist’s exploration of discrimination.

Mr. Mousa, 51, is among a small but growing number of L.G.B.T. artists of Arab descent incorporating their sexual identity into their work. In doing so, they confront their own apprehensions, along with censorship and surveillance in the Arab world, and what educators and curators say is a reluctance by some institutions in the United States to exhibit their work on its artistic rather than political merit.

In “American Landscape: An Exploration of Art & Humanity,” on view through April 8, Mr. Mousa’s gay identity is clearly recognizable in a large work that replaces an American flag’s field of stars with the Human Rights Campaign’s bold “=” symbol. A montage about ending religious bigotry is embedded in another piece.

Mr. Mousa said he manipulated the American flag to address “the hypocrisy in our constitution, where they talk about every man is created under God, equal to others. But when you really look at it, people like me who are gay or people of color, we are substandard.”

Arab details seem more clandestine: Richly decorated arabesques peek though thick, muddy brown paint that veils their underlying beauty. A single color — orange — pervades the work as a visual metaphor for the fear experienced by Arab-Americans in a post-Sept. 11 world, used in the coded terror warning system introduced by the George W. Bush administration.

Mr. Mousa, who is melding his gay and Arab identities in his art, at his studio in Atlanta. Credit Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

Mr. Mousa’s gallerist, Oksana Salamatina, approached the Arab American National Museum last year because of difficulties finding a space to exhibit paintings by the artist, who lives in Atlanta, Ga.

Devon Akmon, the director of the Arab American National Museum, said the “American Landscape” show “challenges that small narrative that exists” about what ideas Arab-Americans will accept. “We’re trying to shed light on the diversity of our community,” he said, adding that there is a place in his museum for dissenting voices.

He added, “this isn’t just a place to come and look at objects on a wall.”

Dearborn, bordering Detroit, has one of the largest Arab-American communities in the country and is the home of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. Known as Access, the group opened the National Museum in 2005 to promote Arab-American culture.

In June 2016, the museum examined the subject of gay discrimination with the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer, Hamed Sinno, identifies as queer. A panel discussion drew several dozen participants, without incident.

Kathy Zarur, a curator and professor at the California College of the Arts, who has also worked for the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, said she did not know of any other Arab art-focused institution holding an exhibition with L.G.B.T. themes.

“It’s really useful because it offers audiences the opportunity to learn that this art exists at all and then gives them an idea of the depths and the breadth of it,” Dr. Zarur said.

She added that even among cultural institutions in the United States that feature artists of Arab descent, “the tendency is to do survey exhibitions that lump artists together” by nationality but rarely explore issues of sexual identity.

Across the Arab world, openly gay, lesbian and transgender people face persecution. The penalty in some countries is imprisonment; even where there are no laws on the books, gay people may still be prosecuted. Men accused of being gay have also experienced deadly violence in regions of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State.

While not all Arabs are Muslim, Quranic interpretation of homosexuality can impact the broader Arab view. Experts in Middle Eastern studies said that some Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs justify anti-L.G.B.T bias using the Quran, Bible and other religious texts, but that these are justifications of already held beliefs, not interpretations. Men and women, they said, have engaged in same-sex eroticism throughout the Muslim world, as evidenced by Arabic poetry. Colonial interactions might have also influenced biases, bringing European notions of homophobia and views of homosexuality into the culture. (Others who have studied the field point out that Islamic interpretations of privacy can protect acts that take place outside of the public sphere.)

In the United States, L.G.B.T. identity in art was long overlooked, or ignored by mainstream museums. Among the first institutions to explore this theme were the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and the New Museum, both in New York. The New Museum’s current show, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” through Jan. 21, examines concepts of trans and queer embodied in new art.



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