The up-and-coming artist has been making heads turn in art spheres last year, first off with the Bedwork series and then with the Moving Frontiers exhibition in Douala, Cameroun. The fearlessness of his boundary-pushing work ignites with flying colours much-needed discussions about the convergence of discriminations for the LGBTQI+ community.
Alleviating the burden of societal dysfunctions with a seemingly candid depiction – this is the very insightful program of Soufiane Ababri’s drawings. There’s something quite bemusing about making thought-provoking art that remains approachable while still comprising of multiple layers of interpretations. On one picture, the bulge of a white man sitting pops up and on another, a young woman is chomping on a banana with a black person in the background. If upon first look, this delightful ensemble (round lines, bright surroundings and rosy-cheeked characters) immediately catches the eye, it’s the hidden message at the heart of the pencilled musings that retains the attention. Added to the faux innocence of his pencil stroke, the underlying truth is always potent. In the two pieces mentioned above, the idealization of the white body and the aftertaste of post-colonialism in modern society are clearly targeted in a way that feels both joyously impertinent and thought-provoking. By extracting these scenes out of the context of everyday life, the young artists puts them under close scrutiny : “the goal of my work is to dismantle the mechanisms of domination and to thwart oppressive social dynamics and power relationships at play”.
Soufiane Ababri’s forte resides in the capacity to capture moments of everyday life for queer people of colour – his inquisitive eye turns the reality of the world around him into multicoloured homopolitic/homoerotic scenes, which are sometimes reminiscent of Persian miniatures. Equally subtle and daring in their study of bodies (here they become the tools of politic reflections), desires, sexuality and history, his illustrations reveal Ababri’s ability to precisely analyze the limits of standardization and the consequences of stigmatization in modern society. The viewer is led to reflect on the place occupied by (or left to?) minorities (sexual, ethnic or social) - how they are excluded from society and how they still suffer from a lack of visibility and representation. On of his most harrowing pictures, a black man holding a sign reading “the only approach I’ve had at a gay bar was when I was asked if I supply drugs” depicts the daily normalized agressions endured by a black gay man. It’s about how this minority position alters the experience of everyday life and how for instance, even the most banale things for some (here, going out and flirting on a night out) can become ordeals for others.
It’s impossible not to notice that the central theme of his drawings are gay men or should we say the violence gay men are victims of. The society we live in is terribly harsh on men who do not tick out the boxes of what a good man should be - conformity to specific traditional masculine traits (suppression of emotion, resort to violence, extreme self-reliance and dominance) is expected of all of them. And what if some refuse to play the alpha male game ? They are instantly seen as malfunctioning or/and depraved. As they are forced onto the individuals targeted, these slurs play a desctructive part in the construction of their self. With Soufiane’s drawings, we are led to think about how gay men are oppressed by society, how gay men oppress each other (this violence being assimilated by some members of the community to the point of being reproduced among themselves - sadly, internalized homophobia is quite recurrent within the gay community and is often pitting members of a same community against each other) and finally how white gay men oppress others. Gay men, women and children are stifled by this culture which places virility on a pedestal - with his drawings, Ababri has at heart to show that and to dismantle the mechanisms of domination in order to lessen their impact on our lives. Having experienced this himself (as a Moroccan gay man living in France), he is convinced that men need to free themselves from the roles society is forcing on them.
Venturing into Soufiane’s background and unique vision helps to quickly understand that his personal life greatly informed the creation of his hierarchy-free approach to art, life and society in general. Soufiane was born in Morocco and now lives and works in between Paris and Tangier. After studying Fine Arts in Montpellier, Paris and Lyon, drawing became the focal point of his practice. Devoting his time to drawing (an activity often perceived as less worthy of artistic grandeur) was a way to distance himself from the normative training he had received in French Fine Arts schools. It was important for him to make a clean break from the authoritative thinking of the upbringing he had received. In hindsight, he realized that violence in art history played a major role in the transmission and inheritance of domination “minorities are in need of solid markers in order to be able to relate to the story of the world around”. The important aspect of Ababri’s far-reaching approach lies in his desire to rethink his relationship to the world and its history.
Even the name of his Bedwork series is also charged with meaning – drawing in bed allows him to set free from the idea that an artist has to work seating at a desk in his studio. He prefers working in bed, the space where intimacy prevails – the same space used to make love, rest or read then becomes an environment where creativity blossoms. Subverting the idea that lying is a position of servitude (for instance, Arabian people have often been represented lying by orientalist painters) was a necessary step to transform the whole creation process into an empowering stance. Quite clearly, the way his art would articulate would be as important as the message conveyed - drawing is an act of rebellion in itself for the him. He says himself that “drawing is a kind of political work that he chooses to achieve with subdued and meaningful tools to avoid reusing the violent mode of expression of the dominant”.
Rethinking harmful concepts playing a destructive part in the construction as an individual is another idea at the heart of his practice. In this regard, a constellation of issues is tackled by the young Moroccan in his oeuvre - hyper-masculinity, homophobia, sexual exotism, visibility (or lack thereof), post-colonialism and desire are put in conversation in a way that feels both eye-opening and liberating. And this is exactly where the brilliance of his work lies – the critical intersectionality (i.e. taking the interactions of multiple identities into account and analyzing how they work together to create social systems) which his entire body of works is soaked in, is a mirror of the richness of his own identity (and by extension, that of his community of peers). Colonial stories become intimate stories and vice versa – by overlaying elements of (his) personal life and a reflection on society, politics and history, Soufiane’s drawings expose the systems of universal domination at play in our society: “I draw men in a homoerotic universe where hierarchies are constantly questioned and criticized. Power play, the dominant and the non-dominant, authority - everything is called in question when we deal with sexuality and eroticization”.
The intersectional lens applied to his work questions the pressure put on racialized men by the patriarchal society – it stresses the intersection of being queer, a person of colour and a man in a society that privileges heterosexual white men, but oppresses queer individuals and persons of colours “Intersectionality is part of my everyday life as I belong to various communities. These subjectivities of groups and social classes make it possible to disrupt the the straight white male dominance”. He also adds that “”intersectionality also consists is benevolence, its essence lies in finding ways to have a better understanding of each other”. In the same way he disavows the principle of normative art, Soufiane stands up against hegemonic masculinity and the idea that there is only one acceptable way to present oneself as a man. In light of recent events (Donald Trump’s election, The Weinstein Gate), the potency of his work cuts deep and forces us to face the harrowing truth - the very system which allows men to exert their authority and privilege over those deemed weaker has run its dreadful course.
With the buoyancy of his all-encompassing work, Soufiane Ababri bludgeons the rigid gender roles placed on men by our society. The intimate and the societal cross swords in his drawings which read as heartfelt and colourful protests against normative violence.
Soufiane Ababri's new exhibition called Haunted Lives is on view until June 16th, 2018 at Galerie Praz-Delavallade, Paris. He will also show at the MILF Project for a collective exhibition at Espace Témoin, in Geneva from May 17th until June 10th and at ArtCenter, Berlin, in October and November.
Images courtesy of SOUFIANE ABABRI
interview JEAN-FRANCOIS ADJABAHOUE
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