As Roland Barthes once remarked, one may know a photograph from memory better than one observed. For me, Scarlett Coten’s Mohaned is one such image. I discovered it in a feature that LensCulture dedicated to her Mectoub project, an award-winning series of portraits of young Arab men, of which this photograph forms a part. Years later, I could still recall the photograph in all its striking detail.
I remembered, of course, the rose Mohaned holds and its stenciled serialization on the white-washed wall behind him. But I could also recall how this redoubling of man and rose was present in other, more subtle images. I remembered how the curve of the flower was traced along the axis of his slouching body, swooping down from forehead to crotch, how the outline of the rose’s petaled head is repeated in Mohaned’s wavy black hair, the stems of the flowers recapitulated in his long slender fingers, the leaves in the twin ends of his undone scarf. This is not a portrait of a man holding a rose but of a man who has become one.
Clearly the scene has been staged, though less clearly, by whom (who thought to bring the rose, I wonder, photographer or or subject?) It is not by accident that the top of his jeans is perfectly aligned with the edge of inverted sky running across the bottom fifth of the photograph. But the artifice of the tableau is undermined by the irruption of the sensual, as he slouches in his chair, legs splayed, gaze fixed on the camera, waiting. His spindly fingers bend from the cocked wrist to alight on his thigh, as if his body were an instrument he was set to play.
Mectoub was not the reason I travelled to Paris this summer, but it did determine my departure date. Coten was among the artists whose work was to be exhibited in 2nd Photography Biennale of the Contemporary Arab World last September, affording me the rare chance to see a part of this remarkable project up close instead of online. Ironically, I would never have known that the photo would be among those on exhibition had it not adorned the poster for the show (as it would later the exhibition catalogue). But there he was, Mohaned. I felt as if I had received an invitation.
A work by a white, French-born woman is perhaps an odd choice for publicizing a photography show dedicated to the Arab world, especially when the great majority of the 50 or so photographers featured in the exhibition were Arabs. Why Coten? Jack Lang, the President of Arab World Institute, where most of the show was held, said that he had started the Biennale as a way of revealing the hidden realities of the Arab world. He saw in Coten an artist who revealed the upheaval still at work in the Arab world by rendering visible the boldness of an emancipated generation and the challenges being made to the traditional image of Arab men.
Coten’s work for the project spanned seven countries and took four years to complete. She began it in 2012 in the wake of the Arab Spring and it is perhaps best read in that context. The extroversion implicit in the movement’s demands for democracy, economic equity and government accountability fueled claims for greater personal freedom as well. It called into question not only the established political order but also constructed norms of gender and identity. And it is this remise en cause of gender and identity that animates the portraits in the series.
She met these men as strangers on the street during his travels to Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, and convinced them to pose for her. Pose is the wrong word, I suppose. From what I have read from interviews she’s given, she gave her subjects no instructions other than not to pose but instead to look at her.
And look they did. Their gaze is a tantalizing mix of vulnerability and sexual energy. It says, come here. These men are supplicants who seduce by art, one ordinarily seen as the purview of women. Indeed, many of these men are photographed in poses one associates with submission or defenselessness—reclining on a bed or couch, for example, or like Mohaned, slouched in a chair, or lying on the floor. But these are not works of Orientalism. Unlike Matisse’s Odalisque in a Turkish Chair, whose head is turned slightly to avert the artist’s gaze, these men look straight into the camera.
Mectoub undermines the gendered dynamic of power at play in the relation between artist and model, not only reversing the roles of each, but also questioning the very notion of the artist’s power over her subject. If these men here have yielded control, they are also winning it back. They are not merely an object of desire but a desiring subject as well, returning the camera’s—and the photographer’s—scrutiny with their own seductive, near brazen gaze. Here, as Paul Hill once said, the photographer is as much bounty as hunter.
Coten rightly calls these portraits an unveiling. The act of self-revelation always implies a metaphorical disrobing—and here, given the number of men who are photographed torse nu, a literal one as well. The mask of traditional male identity they discard (if indeed they have ever worn it) is no less confining than the veil used to conceal the face of a woman.
A subtle homoerotic undercurrent runs through these portraits, only occasionally breaking through the surface, as with Hazem, who is photographed standing in red sequined high heels (which I learned figured in a ballet on gender he had choreographed). The presence of this undercurrent can be sensed in the settings. While several of the men are photographed in their bedroom or on an ornate sofa, most, like Makarios in Cairo, sprawled on a litter-strewn concrete floor atop coils of white industrial tubing, are shot in places of abandonment—in a rubble-strewn hall of a derelict palace, a disused Renault garage, a weed-choked railway siding.
They are all places removed from public view. The secluded venues enabled Coten to create an intimate setting in which the men, extracted from their familiar milieu of friends, family and coworkers but also from the eyes of the street, could be invited—or in her words, challenged—to reveal themselves. At the same time, however, they are also elements of an industrial landscape in decay that has long been part of the iconography of the sexual encounter, loci of cruising, like the dilapidated piers of New York documented in the work of photographers such as Leonard Fink and Alvin Baltrop.
I’m projecting. I don’t know if Coten was aware of this visual lexicon or would disavow it if she were. But the power of her work is due in part precisely to the multiplicity of readings it allows and the associations it triggers.
I may be the only one to think of Cavafy’s poem One Night upon seeing her portrait of Yahia in Tunis. Coten has photographed the shirtless young man lying on a “common, humble bed” bed in what cc ould be a tiny room in a cheap tradesmen’s hotel, perhaps, I think, like the one on which the poet lay and “had love’s body.” Again this redoubling, Yasia’s tattoos, a mark of rebellion even more marked in Islamic culture (one of the young men she photographed in Algiers was sent to prison for his), refigured in the paint splatters on the wall behind him and the floral imprint of the bedclothes. Again, the arresting, unplanned punctum, here the arm of the dervish or ankh in Yasia’s pendant resting against his nipple. Again, this unsettling, beguiling mingling of sexual tension and vulnerability. Intimacy among the ruins.
At the same time, there is something celebratory and liberating to these photographs. “Mectoub” is a portemanteau of the Arabic mektoub, “it is written” and the colloquial French mec or guy. In other words, a man’s destiny. An ironic title, for these hauntingly sensual portraits speak of a freedom that seeks to elude destiny.
Featured photo: Mohaned, Alexandria, Egypt, 2013, © Scarlett Coten.