It’s fascinating to see the return of so many mid- 18th century Orientalist troupes and obsessions : this bizarre and needling determination to categorize and then – as if the categories created are genuine and natural, to analyze. The French are of course persistent and unrepentant Orientalists, and the more educated the worse. And so this gaze that first categorizes – ‘Arab masculinity’, and then pretends to analyze it.
What is ‘Arab masculinity’? Need we ask? Dare we ask where this object of study even comes from? Is it even real? Is there a unique Arab conception and manifestation of ‘masculinity’? Do a dozen stylized, fashion-shoot type set-up images of men who happen to be Arab provide enough material to explain not only the category, but its real existence? Do these men live in cages, isolated from the world and its influences? Do they experience whatever we may think are pure ‘Arab’ experiences, and not any spilling across geographical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and physical boundaries? An ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’, and damn is s/he is anything but a pure representation of an easily isolated and studied species.
And what of the claim of reversals ie the female looking at the male as a change from the male gaze on the female? Is this even a thing? Is this not a discursive distraction from the fundamental question of power which yet again is not addressed directly? The Orientalist gaze was a possessive gaze, and a dispossessing one. It possessed the power to represent, and define, and dispossessed the subject of voice and history.
And so, when Marianne Roux of On Orient describes this work as:
“Mectoub is fascinating because of this unveiling, made possible because the photographer is both female and a foreigner. It plunges us deep into our representations and overturns them. Scarlett Coten holds up these copies for us to see, Homo Orientalis specimens of the new generation, in an unfiltered way, just as they are.”
…one is left feeling a little queasy at the crassly familiar phrasing and erasing. The use of words such as ‘unveiling’ or ‘Homo Orientalis’ are in amateurish poor taste, but the suggestion ‘in an unfiltered way…’ a profoundly troubling reminder of classical Orientalisms conviction of simply offering facts unaffected by power, politics, prejudice or personal ambition.
Gender. Arab masculinity. African masculinity – I wrote about the latter in an earlier post called Rethinking Africa Or How Not To Talk About Your Africa Project, where I argued (among other finely crafted points), that the work under discussion about ‘African Masculinity’ suffered from erasures of many kinds. Specifically:
A people’s history, and political experiences of people are simply ejected into the dustbin of the inconvenient, while an essentialised focus on ‘traditional ideas of manhood’, or if I can summarise: African, black male cultural practices, becomes the principal investigative element in the work. One wonders what ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ we expect to find in a society (the DRC) that have been rent asunder under the weight of brutal war, and decades of genocidal violence? What idealised African-ness – whatever that is, and however one can even begin to describe it, can be discovered in a country that has been perhaps permanently and indelibly transformed because of its experiences, and its brutal introductions to modernity? How does one even begin to speak about ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ in a space so militarised, so devastated, so distorted and so disrupted by violence – military, economic and political?
I will argue that the fundamental problem with such projects, and the international humanitarian discourse it is a part of, is that by focusing on gender specific violence alone – though lucrative as a humanitarian fund-raising strategy, fails to reflect the actual realities on the ground in war-ravaged regions such as the Congo and South Africa, and in fact distorts these realities. Furthermore, that the presumptions it makes about societies that have for centuries – certainly since colonial times, been subjected to tremendous cultural essentialism to the exclusion of all else, retain even a modicum of what could be described as ‘traditional culture’ or ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ is too fraught with ahistorical presumptions and exotification of the other.
We construct categories but then forget that we constructed them. Foucault can scream till hell freezes over, but in a decade where Orientalism’s reductive and debilitating simplicities are back in style, I must say that I am not surprised that this body of work is taken unquestioningly seriously, but am also disappointed that it is.
We need to question Coten’s constructions, despite the claims to overturn representations, and see the ways in which they belong to a long tradition of colonial photography that wants to capture individuals, sans individual histories and social, cultural, intellectual and psychological interconnections, and offer them up as general representations of a unique, manufactured category. Today more than ever – with travel, education, the internet, magazines, television and big-screen media, social media and more, it is untenable to argue or justify the existence of isolated and insulated social ‘categories’.
In a world that is as integrated, inter-connected, and intermingled as it ever was, where influences from around the globe and the digital globe, from travel, from readings, from relationships, from education and knowledge, from experiences that transcend a local culture or geography and then influence the construction of the self, ideas of identity, style, voice, intellectual development and even emotional expressions, its near impossible to speak of ‘Arab masculinity’. But of course, when it comes to ‘Arab’ – as the Orientalists once did and now as we are once again reaching for these debilitating categories and reductive generalizations, these ideas are being given new currency by European institutions if not European / Western photographers. If it’s not the ‘hijab’, or ‘women’s liberation’ or other some such tiresome and idiotic arena of focus, it’s simply a continuation of the use of gender and sexuality to cage and label. It is an act of cultural and intellectual violence to castrate these subjects from their many relationships and broad influences, and pen them into a construction that suggests that they represent something entirely ‘Arab’ – whatever that is, and something entirely ‘masculine’, whatever that is too.
Note: Hester Keijser reminded me that I need to differentiate the way this project was depicted by the Oskar Barnack Award committee and the goals and intentions of the photographer. She is correct to point out that institutions can run away with the work and give it an entirely new voice. She also pointed out that Coten herself has a difficult and complex relationship with this work, one that she continues to work through. I respect the photographer’s perspective and would love to have a discussion. My comments above are based on the public statements about this work, both from the Oskar Barnack announcement and from Coten’s own website. I look forward to, and hope, that Coten will some day pen a concise and clear argument, where she isn’t afraid to express her process but also her doubts and self-questioning, as we all do about the works we pursue. The convention of ‘bombast’ and ‘confidence’ required of photographers, where they speak of their works without ever revealing their own struggles and self-questioning, has to end.