The Gay Kuwaiti Artist With No Boundaries

He already has Koran verses tattooed on his body and plans to add the Jewish and Muslim names of God. Meet Islamic avant-garde artist Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort.

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Whenever I point out anything positive in the Arab world, I am automatically accosted from all sides with rebukes like, “If you think it’s so good there, then go live with the Arabs. Let’s see you survive!” I am accused of holding a romantic view of Arab culture and of even being a traitor to my own country.

The people who fling such accusations at me know about what they speak. After all, I would never want to live in a place where I would have to go back into the closet, living in hiding or living a lie. While there is room for improvement in Israel’s treatment of members of the LGBT community, there really is no comparison with Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is prohibited by law, and the punishment for it can be imprisonment, flogging, chemical castration and even death.

These thoughts come to mind during an encounter with Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort , a young, openly gay Kuwaiti-born artist, whose one-man exhibition, “The Arab Unbound,” was shown in London in February and is now showing at “The Window” in Paris.

De Montfort’s work deals with Arab identity, with an emphasis on the grace of men and the strength of women, together with the various components of his own identity: Arabness, Islam, masculinity, homosexuality, queerness, femininity and even his socioeconomic status. “I want to bring the art of sexuality, of eroticism and sensuality, back to the Arab-Islamic world,” he says, explaining that for him there is no difference between religious ritual and sexual ritual. Both, he says, bring us close to divinity — as he hopes to do.

De Montfort was born in Kuwait to a wealthy family and studied at the international school his family established. He spent much of his time in his family’s large museum, the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait City, which contains more than 30,000 items of Arabic calligraphy, Islamic art, jewelry and more, which his parents collected over the years. At 17, de Montfort moved to London, where he studied art at University of the Arts London. “Kuwait is stifling,” he explains, “and I was also looking for love, which I never would have found in Kuwait, where the gay scene is very tough and unforgiving.”

His one-man exhibit is comprised of photographs, watercolors and inks, together with works that include pearls. Consciously or not, de Montfort chose various types of art that contain components of his own identity. On the one hand, there are art works made of wood inlaid with mother of pearl, which are identified with Damascene furniture and with authentic Arab art, and watercolors reminiscent of the Indian miniatures that depict mass orgies. On the other hand, there are photographs whose composition and warm tones evoke the Orientalist paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, which depict how the West viewed the East.

There is undoubtedly a “Western” component in the identity of de Montfort, who attended an international school in Kuwait where the language of instruction was English. Still, it seems that as an artist, he is doing something subversive by adopting, even stealing, the conqueror’s view of the conquered -- with a twist. De Montfort inserts inappropriate elements that don’t mesh with the classic Western view: a toy camel that can be found in any tourist market in any Arab country, an Arab in a kaffiyeh — but with light-toned skin and bright blue eyes, two men kissing, or the artist’s own tattooed body.

Body as canvas

Indeed, de Montfort uses his body as a canvas. His tattoos include verses from the Koran, various symbols and some of the names of Allah. He says he plans to tattoo all 99 names of Allah, according to Islamic tradition, on his body, together with the 72 names of God according to Jewish kabbalistic tradition. He regards his art, together with his work, religious ritual, body and soul as one, and all of them are one with divinity. This approach corresponds well to the idea of God’s oneness, which is highly significant in Islam (and of course in Judaism as well, as reflected in the Shema Yisrael prayer: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God; the Lord is One”). This is how de Montfort says he understands and experiences Islam, in contrast to the way the sages of Islamic law interpret the Koran and sharia.

He defines his art as “Islamic avant-garde.” In June, he will collaborate with the Israeli dancer Ofir Siman Tov in performance art. It seems there is no border that de Montfort is unwilling to cross.

De Montfort has no problem with his own homosexuality. He revels in it. He has not been in contact with his father for years (his parents are divorced), and that does not necessarily have to do with his homosexuality. He says that his father comes from a conservative Iraqi family and would never understand or accept it, so there was no point in telling him. But the rest of his family know about and accept his sexual identity. Recently, he visited his family in Kuwait and even gave a class in the art school there for the first time.

“Homosexuality is forbidden in Kuwait,” he notes, “but it’s actually quite prevalent, even among straight men, to have sex with other men, because the homosexual identity there is not the same as the one that is conventional in the West, and having sex with a man does not necessarily make you gay.”

I would like to express the hope that I will travel to Kuwait to see de Montfort’s exhibit, but it is doubtful that he will be allowed to exhibit his courageous works in any Arab country. In the meantime I can see his work in Paris.

On the other hand, I finally managed to write a column in which the Arab world is portrayed as primitive and backward. That is something, too.