Universes in Universe

For an optimal view of our website, please rotate your tablet horizontally.

Home and Homeland

About the photo series "Eastern LGBT" by Ahlam Shibli, exhibited at the 27th São Paulo Biennial.
By Lisette Lagnado | Feb 2007

The pictures gathered under the title Eastern LGBT were part of a still incipient research when I met Ahlam Shibli on the first week of April 2006. [1] At that time she was showing the Trackers series in the Herzliya Contemporary Art Museum. The purpose of my trip was to research the region's art scene for the 27th São Paulo Biennial. Ahlam Shibli, however, had been invited after an earlier curatorial meeting. [2] Our meeting was therefore a discussion on the project she would present at the Biennial, since this exhibition required that every artist show a new work next to a previous one, thus providing a sort of "mini-survey" — a strategy we followed strictly to avoid the déjà-vu in most biennials, but also to record the breadth of the artist's path and to stimulate experimental projects.

Face to face at a café table, Ahlam and I started a delicate relationship, ready to crumble at the first misplaced word: I had abolished national representations for the São Paulo Biennial and the artist's wish was to present herself as born in Haifa/Palestine. As she talked about the difference between "house" and "home", she could not foresee the resonance those two words created in such a close and distant interlocutor: as the daughter of Syrian Jews, I was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and my family had to move to Brazil for political reasons.

I encouraged the development of the Eastern LGBT series for several motives. One of them was that I doubted she could, right after the Trackers series, produce such a good work on the "soldiers" theme again — for those who don't know it, Trackers is about Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent who serve in the Israeli army. I also wished to avoid the cliché based on the criticism of the occupied territories through the "victim's" lens.

Ahlam Shibli is an artist gifted with exuberant speech and solidly structured ideas. With a tireless determination, in whatever series she develops, "house" and "home" will be her leitmotiv and the term "narrative" will be recurrent in her discourse. One thing leading to another, the narrative genre which had seemingly been banished from contemporaneity is now back, almost as an attempt to transmit experiences within a single question: how to feel "at home"? Her experience goes not from mouth to mouth (Walter Benjamin) but from image to image. We know the power of an image in today's world.

In Eastern LGBT, that home is the body. Each one has his own body and is free to do with it as he pleases. We are responsible for it — Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality would come to terms! This body, however, as opposed to what we learn with philosophers, does not belong to us. Whatever the religion, we are only here for a "master of the universe's" will. Any allowed decision of acting on this body clashes with several taboos, some of them based on hygiene and food, most of them carrying precepts on sexual practices. The body is social but it is first and foremost divine — thus both God and the society that preaches His teachings determine the limits of what we can do with ourselves. Man's ethics has laws for every case.

To say only of the three major monotheistic religions, homosexuality in its diverse manifestations is forbidden and must be punished. As a foreigner, alien to its own desire and guilt-ridden, the body suffers with the impossibility of reaching his communion ("home") with the meeting with a same-sex partner: it is an "uneasy" house to live in. Individual choice is enforced, and the debate adds values that disrupt the notion of "home" and worse still, of "homeland". Against a repressive society, another notion arises, that of "community". One must leave one's family home to form a community with people who share the same choices. Now, the fact that the family is no longer a joyful home and night clubs and other "dark places" can represent a possible nest — that is the desecration of behavior yielded by the 60s´ generation with the strength of a revolutionary libido (Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization). Hence the question: how does Ahlam Sibli's work depart from that key to gain its singularity?

On second thought, her statement on Trackers is a perfect explanation for the Eastern LGBT series — though they are pictures that show a human being in another position in society, the basic question remains the same: "[...] the price to be paid by a minority to the majority, perhaps in order to be accepted, perhaps to change its identity, perhaps to survive or perhaps to achieve all of this and more." [3]

Ahlam Shibli's camera does not retreat. Her pictures shown at the 27th São Paulo Biennial gave a wider breadth to the strict definition of home as a place, a territory, a residence. Eastern LGBT acknowledges that the sex drive also belongs to the affective vocabulary connected with the word "home". A family's constitution is the basis that legitimizes sexual relations. Hasn't God created woman for man? [4]

According to the artist, "we all need a bond with a community" — even though that community must be found in other countries. It is almost an idea of "voluntary exile" that helps a house called "the body" fulfill its desire. As we face the problems of Palestine's legalization, the artist ties yet another knot on the difficult task of understanding a homeland. Why does Ahlam Shibli mention not the homeland but a word, "home", a synonym that at the same time allows her a distance?


  1. Ahlam Shibli was invited to the Documenta 12, Kassel, Germany, 16 June to 23 September 2007.
  2. Lisette Lagnado was the chief curator of the 27th São Paulo Biennial. Rosa Martínez, Cristina Freire, Adriano Pedrosa and José Roca formed the curatorial committee, while Jochen Volz was a guest curator.
  3. Cf. Ulrich Loock: "Ahlam Shibli. Resisting Oppression", in Camera Austria, 93, 2006, Seite, pp. 41-51.
  4. In Portuguese, the word for "house" or "home" is "casa", which yields "casal" [couple] and "casamento" [marriage]. Artist José Leonilson (1957-1993), who died of aids, left two drawings with writings that refer to similar questions as Ahlam Shibli's. In one of them, the body is presented as a "temple"; in the other, the body is the envelope of an "inner protecting mountain" — both divine and geographical instances.

Lisette Lagnado

PhD, was Chief Curator of the 27th São Paulo Biennial with her winning project "How to live together".

(From the Portuguese: Alberto Dwek)

Eastern LGBT, 2006
Series of 37 photographs
London, Zürich, Barcelona, Tel Aviv

Back to Top