Beauty and the Beast: photography, the body and sexual discourse in the Middle East and Central Eurasia 
Pedram Khosronejad (Powerhouse Museum)
Louise Siddons (Oklahoma State University)
SOAS Senate House - S314
Sunday 3 June, 13:30-15:00, 15:30-17:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel is open to a broad range of scholars and artists who are addressing photography and sexuality in the greater Middle East and Central Eurasia during the modern and contemporary periods.

Long Abstract

The invention of photography, as Lalvani states (1996: 2), "is a crucial moment in the development of a modern structure of vision and is both constructive of and constituted by a modern ocular paradigm; its operations are dependent on the larger ocular and cultural formation within which it is deployed, its investment-effect constituted by a particular ensemble of discourses and practices, and specific forms of subject-object relations." Indeed, in legitimizing specific forms of subject-object relations, technologies of vison such as photography are embedded within particular discursive knowledge, power and the body (Foucault 1979). Therefore, in order to understand photography's relation with the body during the modern period, we must not only examine the discourses and practices within which photography has operated at different levels of the social formation to produce specific bodies, but the ocular epistemology within which these practices are constituted, shaped, and given meaning (Lalvani: ibid).

The topics may include (but are not limited to):

- The visual order of sexual photography;

- Aesthetics of intimacy;

- Western technology, local beauty and indigenous aesthetic;

- Vernacular photography as a challenge to Orientalism;

- Colonial photography and indigenous creativity;

- Influence of European migrants and refugees on vernacular pornography;

- From brothel to studio, from studio to brothel;

- Photography as an object of desire;

- Traditional vision and modern bodies;

- Censorship, sexuality and creativity;

- Islam, the body and nude photography;

- Museums and censorship;

- The position of museums and galleries in collaboration with artists;

- Western photographs and local albums.

Accepted papers:


Louise Siddons (Oklahoma State University)

Paper short abstract:

I situate Iranian erotic photography of the turn of the century within the context of international scopic regimes of eroticism, exoticism, and the gendered gaze. I consider the erotic gaze on display in these photographs as an expression of elite selfhood within Iran's emergent modern identity.

Paper long abstract:

A set of erotic photographs, produced privately in Iran, is extraordinary in the context of contemporaneous Iranian photography of women. Borrowing from European painting, portrait photography, and pornographic traditions, the images signal intimacy with European visual culture, establishing a cultural authority from which they critiqued European hierarchies of visual culture to erotic effect.

By the end of the nineteenth century, pornography was closely associated with Paris, for good reason: much of the erotic material consumed internationally was produced there. Consumers and critics of erotica alike, outside of France, used this association to define explicit sexual expression in terms of its Frenchness—in other words, in terms of its foreignness. In the same moment, Paris was likewise considered the center of the European fine art world, and was actively participating in the construction of a Eurocentric art history that extended back to the Italian Renaissance. Central to that history was the female nude as subject, often characterized in terms of classical mythology or, by the eighteenth century, an anthropological gaze directed at ethnic others.

The photographs under consideration here explicitly model themselves on Renaissance paintings—and also on the conventions of French studio pornography. Together, the two iconographic modes are irreverent and parodic, and aesthetically progressive; paradoxically, they use a familiarity with the breadth of European visual tradition to undermine its claims of cultural superiority. In so doing, these images served not only the immediate purpose of erotic pleasure, but also asserted the social position and status of the Iranian elite who were creating and exchanging these images in an increasingly cosmopolitan context.


Charlotte Bank

Paper short abstract:

Chaza Charafeddine's "Divine Comedy" juxtaposes contemporary portraits of Beirut's underground transgender and cross-dressing community with reproductions of Islamic miniatures and popular imagery, thus creating a space within which to negotiate gender fluidity and sexual ambiguity.

Paper long abstract:

The photography-based series "Divine Comedy" by Lebanese visual artist Chaza Charafeddine offers a critique of the changing mores in Middle Eastern/Islamic societies. Charafeddine inserts contemporary portraits of members of Beirut's underground transgender and cross-dressing community into reproductions of Persian and Mughal miniatures and popular imagery of mythological beings from the mid-20th century. Produced as a commentary on the rising conservatism in Middle Eastern societies, the resulting body of work represents a multilayered critique of a "forgotten" or "negated" history, a history that allowed for a broader understanding of what the term "Islamic" or "Muslim" culture might accommodate.

Charafeddine portrays her models as strongly symbolic creatures, such as angels, the Buraq, brides, sultanas, but also as playful beings such as composite creatures of peacocks and women or as a "fruit lady". The models are presented as beautiful, elegant and refined and the portraits are placed in juxtaposition with classical Islamic imagery of court scenes involving celebrations, music and dance and young lovers, Sufi religious practices or imagery from various versions of the Miraj Nameh. The juxtaposition of references to depictions of humans and creatures whose sexual identities are ambiguous and the contemporary portraits of transsexuals or cross-dressing men creates a space within which to negotiate new understandings of gender identities without denouncing the Islamic cultural heritage. The paper will discuss how the artist uses combinations of images as a critique of contemporary denial of gender fluidity and sexual ambiguity and how this denial differs from earlier historical periods.


Andrew Gayed (York University, Toronto Canada)

Paper short abstract:

I historicize homosociality in Middle Eastern art to better investigate contemporary photography, aesthetics of intimacy, and Queer diasporic art. In studying contemporary photography I contribute to the study of Islamicate homoeroticism historically and bridge the gap with modern sexual discourses.

Paper long abstract:

I will historicize homosociality within Middle Eastern art in order to better investigate contemporary photography, and the Queer political work that is being produced by diasporic artists. This investigation will nuance Middle Eastern Art research and cultural studies by historicizing the intersection of Queer theory, Middle Eastern art, and issues of masculinity and the aesthetics of intimacy; it is this focus of Middle Eastern contemporary art that I am on the cutting edge. My timely research emphasizes intersectional themes of race, power, and imperialism, in addition to researching the political artwork that is associated with the diasporic community.

This paper will discuss Middle Eastern homosexuality and focus on issues of Modernity, multiple Modernities, and the West's claim to Modernity. With issues of colonialism, orientalism, and intercultural encounters being the focus of analysis, this discussion will have us thinking about Arab homo-sexualities in terms of desire and alternative masculinities rather than Western notions of homosexuality predicated in homonormative models of visibility and coming out.

Using contemporary photography as the case study within my analysis, I will contribute to the study of Islamicate homoerotic aesthetics historically in addition to bridging the gap with modern sexual discourses. A cause-and-effect relationship between historical and contemporary histories of desire, I believe, is demonstrated in the photographic artwork of contemporary artists currently living in the Middle East or the diaspora. The study of historical visual culture concurrently with contemporary art and photography can better illustrate how the history of same-sex desire in the Middle East is currently manifested and negotiated by artists both locally and transnationally.


Irvin Cemil Schick

Paper short abstract:

Amateur erotica in Ottoman script with hand-drawn illustrations produced during the late Empire and the early Republic stand between stylised miniatures and literalist modern pornography. I will present two sets of Turkish amateur erotica from the early twentieth century and place them in context.

Paper long abstract:

Ottoman visual culture has produced a fair amount of sexually explicit material, particularly during the eighteenth century. The erotic miniatures painted in this period owe more to Islamicate visual traditions than to European influences, but these latter become increasingly apparent during the nineteenth century, especially in lithographic illustrations to erotic works. Such images display a distinct effort to localise and vernacularise, and are better described as the fruit of acculturation rather than pure imitation. Publishing enjoyed an upsurge following the restoration of constitutional monarchy in 1908, and both texts and illustrations published during this period heavily borrowed from European, particularly French sources. By the 1950s and 60s, the visual language of republican Turkish erotica had become less complex and more literal, particularly with the proliferation of photography and film.

An interesting corpus of "home-made" or "amateur" erotica was produced, in Ottoman script and with hand-drawn illustrations, during the waning years of the Empire and the early Republic. These stand between the stylised and stilted language of miniature painting and the orgy of visibility and ritualised literalism that characterises contemporary pornography in its photographic and filmic expressions. Their storylines are generally vernacular, while their images range from culturally specific to clinically universalised. Much of this production tends to be ephemeral, as their producers' heirs hasten to destroy any signs of their parents' and grandparents' naughty behavior. I will present two stashes of Turkish amateur erotica from the first decades of the twentieth century and attempt to situate them in context.


Shadi Rezaei

Paper short abstract:

As an artist, I am presenting a series of my work, which includes an audio/visual presentation. It is intended to provoke discussion on the subjects of nudity, gender, and identity.

Paper long abstract:

Migration and change of homeland and the transformation of culture and its social identity causes not only the former concepts of identity to have a different meaning, but also can result in conflict with the new identity.

As a female artist originating from Iran with a Muslim majority, the body, clothing, and identity, have always been questionable and appealing. The body, and especially the naked body, has always fascinated me because I look at it as a pure base of identity and not from a sexual point of view. I have always examined and presented gender and identity in my work metaphorically amongst paradoxical concepts and double-faced features such as femininity and masculinity/ ugliness and beauty/ pain and pleasure/ power and strength.

As a cross-culture artist, I explore the real human identity irrespective of time and place. This status of time and place of birth enforces an additive identity on the human being. Clothing is perhaps the first visible and judgmental aspect of this superficial identity. Clothing has a powerful influence on us, and more importantly, in the eyes of others. This superficial identity shrouds the real identity of any human being.

I demonstrate this by choosing different people from different ethnic groups, religions, orientations and sexual preferences, often naked or with a type of clothing, which is in conflict with their defined identity. I invite my subjects to become part of my story in an effort to challenge and question the patched cultural and gender identity that imposed on us.


Pedram Khosronejad (Powerhouse Museum)

Paper short abstract:

In this presentation, erotic photographs will be my starting point to trace the origins of sexual photography in Iran under the Qajar dynasty (1860s-1920s).

Paper long abstract:

The first camera probably arrived in Iran only three years after the creation of the first Daguerreotype in France in 1839. Nasser al-Din Shah began his reign on 5th September 1848 when he was seventeen years old, and soon became one of the first ever king photographers of the world. Under his patronage the science of photography and related techniques quickly developed among members of the court and aristocratic families. Obviously this resulted in the creation of royal, private and later public photographic studios all around Iran.

In this presentation, erotic photographs will be my starting point to trace the origins of sexual photography in Iran under the Qajar dynasty. By studying the unique photographs of Nasser al-Din Shah's grandson, Douste Mohamed Khan Moayer, I would like to understand the significance of Qajar pornographic photographs as objects of sexual desire among the royal and aristocratic community. Even if the nude photographs of the Qajar period were designed, produced and perhaps circulated primarily by Iranians to visualise the unseen female body for the sexual satisfaction of the male gaze, I believe it also had strong connections to the development of the country from the perspective of modernisation, and therefore Europeanisation.


Nasser Teymourpour

Paper short abstract:

Nudity undertakes a strange journey in Iranian culture. From the Qajar era onwards, the status of nudity enters another phase. In my perception, photographs of the nude Pahlevan men are the most interesting of all, but What if Pahlevani in Iran would have been the subject of a feminine culture?

Paper long abstract:

Nudity is an erratic taboo that undertakes a strange journey in Iranian art. During the pre-Qajar miniature painting era, nudity in art was exclusively restricted to maniacs, demons and women. From the Qajar era onwards, especially after the arrival of photography in Iran and its growing popularity, the status of nudity also enters another phase. From women of the royal harem to Pahlevans*, all were now subjects of nudity in art.

In my perception, photographs of the nude Pahlevan men are the most interesting of all. It seems as if from the beginning, based on an unwritten rule, a specific visual culture and etiquette was being followed. It represented a masculine culture, rough, and at times unnatural and fake. Observing these heritage traces, a question appeared in my mind which I wanted to try to answer: What if Pahlevani** in Iran would have been the subject of a feminine culture? How would the visual standard have changed? I decided to test this and learn through a limited sample of Iranian women volunteers who agreed to be naked in front of my camera. As a result, I reached some very interesting conclusions.

It turns out, there has always been a feminine taste and version of this Pahlevani culture; a characteristic that became clearly observed in my photographs. It is a characteristic that is hidden in the secret den of the chest of Gordafarid's** descendants.

*Pahlevān: Athlete, warrior

**Gordafarid is one of the heroines in the Shāhnāmeh