Accepted Paper:

Critique by Association. Chaza Charaffedine's "Divine Comedy" and contemporary representations of gender in the Middle East  
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.

Panel P049
Beauty and the Beast: photography, the body and sexual discourse in the Middle East and Central Eurasia