A little less resolute than Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” the Bluecoat exhibition “I exist (in some way)” takes the latter half of this philosophical reasoning and expands on the age-old enquiry into human existence. The featured artists strive to uncover the deeply layered repertoire of Middle Eastern identities, while at the same time reflecting upon how identities are universally created, understood and maintained.
Lamia Gargash, whose work is currently on display, claims that, “The show is a challenge to typical media images of how the Middle East is portrayed.” Western interpretation sees a homogenous “Arab identity,” with religion, politics, and often extremism and conflict, all central to its definition. The displayed works present a more personal picture of the Arab culture, diluting these governing stereotypes to reveal the true diversity of Arab identity.
Reflections often fall upon women and the suppressed existence of their gender, with few endeavours to understand where men fit into this problem. The very fact that the exhibition’s promotional photo is of a male subject instantly affirms the intention to deviate from what is expected, to rearrange and return with an entirely novel and fresh perspective on Arab identity.
Photographers George Awde and Tanya Habjouqa both seek to address the overlooked issue of Arab masculinity by examining alternative forms of male identity away from the “limited narrative of Arab men’s linkage to war and violence” (Awde.) Their works present an alternative, unseen side of masculinity that is entrenched in sensitivity, emotion and, at some points, weakness.
Awde’s “Shifting Grounds” addresses the unspoken, forbidden lives of homosexual men. His images reveal clandestine spaces in which suppressed expressions of male tenderness can be fulfilled. However, the alienation and loneliness permeating the images remind us that these marginalised identities have been rejected from society.
Habjouqa’s “Fragile Monsters: Arab Body Builders,” reflects the power and ferocity of mainstream masculinity, while simultaneously uncovering the fragility that lies beneath the men’s muscles and dominating stances. The same figures are shown breaking down into tears from the stress and exhaustion of trying to maintain this stereotype.
Similarly to Awde’s series, Hichem Driss’ “Erreur 404” documents individuals that have become marginalised from their own society, forced to exist in interstitial spaces as unwanted anomalies of the Tunisian population. By presenting these individuals in his works, Driss provides them with a sense of self-validation and acceptance, things they are ultimately denied within post-revolutionary Tunisia. Yet, by keeping the most personal aspect of their identity (their eyes) blacked out, their individuality remains suppressed and they must continue to exist anonymously.
“I exist (in some way)” reminds us of the ambiguity and uncertainty that lies at the heart of all structured forms of identity, due largely to its dependence upon transient, cultural foundations. It forces us to consider what happens when all points of cultural reference are removed. The exhibition presents individuals that have been rejected or have become misplaced from the dominant, demarcated lines of social identity. Yet, they surely cannot be said to exist any less than those that fit perfectly into the ideal, compliant model. The ambiguity of the exhibition’s title reflects that of the nature of human identity. It expresses the vague “way” in which we “exist” today in our current environment. Yet, if all foundations of this environment were to crumble tomorrow, we would still find a way to continue existing- “in some way” or another.