Former dancer turned art curator, then visual artist, Chaza Charafeddine seems to have as many past lives as sources of interest. Mashallah News met with her on a sunny Wednesday morning in her Hamra studio where the initial interview on her Divine Comedy artwork led to an easy conversation involving mythological animals, classical Arab poetry and Carmen Maura.
At first, the faces of young feminine males, drowned in a colourful pattern, recall the gold-shimmering characters in Gustav Klimt’s paintings. But, the association of traditional Islamic art and contemporary sexually hybrid figures quickly prevents any further comparison. Chaza Charafeddine’s art is a unique and highly personal interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. “I just like to put together different historical frames,” explains Charafeddine. “European Middle-Ages and Islamic Middle-Ages, popular art and Islamic art; I naturally associate one image with another.” This appeal for various mythological influences might stem from the artist’s background itself: “I come from a very conservative, but not religious, Shia family,” she explains. “I was educated by nuns and lived in Europe. This is probably why, for me, it’s natural to mix everything.”
Three series constitute Charafeddine’s work. First of all, her portraits of angels: “Angels are very beautiful creatures and they have an ambiguous sexual identity.” Then, her portraits of animals such as the mythological half-horse, half-human buraq or the peacock, symbolising beauty, wisdom and power. The models of her third line of portraits play the role of female characters such as a sultana, a young bride or a “Fruit Lady.” Charefeddine’s photo montages are a mix of Islamic art from the Mughal period, Persian miniatures produced between the 16th and 18th centuries and images of 1940s Middle-Eastern popular art. Her work implies much upstream research like browsing through books looking for inspiration. Currently, she’s working on a new project dealing with martyrdom and sacrifice. It might include the warrior of good intentions, Perceval, appearing next to a new version of Jean Fouquet’s Madonna, Saint Denis or Hussein (the latter had his head cut off and the former, his arms).
For her version of the Divine Comedy, Charafeddine played with the discrepancies between the classical and popular representations of the buraq. In Islamic art, the buraq is painted as an androgynous figure, while it somehow turned into a woman in the art of the 1940s. From this came the idea of asking homosexual men and transsexuals to pose as models for her artwork. Charafeddine comments: “In Mughal art, beauty was conveyed through the young, beardless boy while in Arab classical poetry, the ghazal, a sexually indistinct poem on beauty, developed. At that time, it was actually good form to have a young beardless lover. Of course, this type of sexual relationship was not considered homosexual.” By word of mouth, the artist was soon able to meet with a bunch of gay men and transsexuals, and even with a straight young man with no trouble expressing his feminine side. “Some of them are just homosexual men who enjoy cross-dressing,” recalls Charafeddine, “while others are trans-genra: biologically male, but with a female sexual identity and orientation.”
Before starting her work, the artist had long interviews with each potential model. A few of them asked for money. “This is not how I envisioned this work. Also, I wasn’t always inspired by their personalities. But the request did make sense since, unfortunately, the trans world and prostitution are related to one another.” With most of the models though, an intimate relation was formed between them and Charafeddine; something that is manifest in the final artwork. Each picture conveys secrets about the life of both the artist and the models. “One of them had to abandon a kid, so I made her pose with a bird in her closed fist,” Charafeddine enumerates. “This one guy, full of life and movement, wanted to be Carmen Maura (one of Almodovar’s muse, ed.), so I made him Carmen Maura. Another one wanted to look like Haifa Wehbe. One of them even wanted to be a mermaid! But I told him there is no mermaid in Islamic art, so instead of a fish tail I used a pattern from an Ottoman pin and transformed it into a tail-looking skirt.”
Amazingly, the awaited criticism of Charafeddine’s highly subversive work never arrived. The artist herself was the first to be surprised: “They neither know Islamic art nor Islamic mythology. I think most people didn’t even recognise that the prophet Muhammad was guided to Heaven by a buraq,” analyses the artist. “We were expecting more criticism and had been careful not to print a detailed catalogue explaining what is what in the exhibition. Maybe there were some journalists who did recognise the prophet Muhammad, but avoided mentioning it to protect me or the gallery. Others may simply have practiced self-censorship.” At the opening night of the exhibition, two of Charafeddine’s models didn’t dare coming. The gallery in Dubai where Charafeddine’s work was shown did not put the pictures on its website. But all of them were sold. The artist recalls being surprised by one buyer: “There was this very conservative man, an acquaintance of mine, who said: ‘This woman is very beautiful’. When I told him that she is a transsexual, he was ill-at-ease and asked me if I couldn’t do the same work with a woman instead. Of course, I declined the offer and, after hesitating a little, he finally bought the piece.”