New exhibit explores the dichotomy of being Arab and gay

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday August 31, 2016
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A new art exhibit opening this month, "Once Upon A Time," explores and pushes the boundaries in a provocative way of what it means to be a gay Arab man.

The multimedia work by visual artist Jamil Hellu, 39, explores his gay identity and his Middle Eastern heritage through a series of select self-portraits and photos, screen prints, and videos. The exhibit, which opens in San Francisco September 6, will be on display at the University of San Francisco's Thacher Gallery in the Gleeson Library / Geschke Center.

"I thought it was important to have Jamil Hellu's work here because I thought that it would really help to spark conversations," said Glori Simmons, the gallery's director.

Hellu's show is a continuation of a series of exhibits exploring identity and heritage that have been on display at USF, said gallery manager Nell Herbert.

The works "have really looked at identity, people representing their own identity, cultural heritage, and kind of pushing the boundaries or asking important questions," she said.

The Bay Area Reporter got a sneak peak of the new exhibit last month during a conversation with Hellu about his work, why it's important, what are his fears, and why he's speaking out against the violence of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq and its brutal attacks on gay men.

His show comes just as reports of members of ISIS threw four men, including two members of the militant group, off of a building in Mosul, Iraq on August 20, allegedly for being gay, reported Gay Star News.

It was such news reports that inspired Hellu to begin exploring his ethnic heritage and sexual orientation in his art.

"April of last year [I was] reading so much about the news about what's happening in Syria and the destruction about the Syrian country. I came across ... an article with a video of several Arab men who were about to be thrown out of a building by ISIS because they are perceived to be gay. That was very dramatic to me," said Hellu. "To say it's so barbaric, the violence, but at the same time it is used as a spectacle to others to set an example, so it's propaganda. That's quite disturbing ... how [they] use the killing as a spectacle."

He also spoke with gay refugees from the Middle East about their own experiences.

"In thinking about that, I started thinking about my own lineage, my own heritage," he said.

He then sought out tintype photographer Kari Orvik to take a photo of him dressed in Arabic fashion mimicking the images of his grandfather. A tintype is a photograph on a thin sheet of metal.

Seeing the portrait was a very emotional moment for him.

"It became very symbolic to me," he said, talking about the wealth of history and Syria's part in the history of civilization. "We are connected, in a sense, through heritage to the Middle East, no matter what religion you are."


Claiming heritage

Born and raised in Brazil, Hellu is of Syrian and Paraguayan descent. His name comes from a town in Syria, Mashta al-Helu, he said. Although his family left Syria with the coffee trade three generations ago, their traditions have been carried on through his grandfather and father in their adopted country.

This created a deep connection to Syria within Hellu, even though he has never been to the land where his father's family originated or spoke Arabic before a lesson that he turned into one of the films on display at the gallery.

Hellu, who is the oldest of two siblings, a brother and sister, came to the United States 20 years ago to study English and law, but he fell in love with photography. Now living in San Francisco, he launched his career nearly a decade ago exhibiting his work in solo shows in the Bay Area and Paris.

"Once I claimed my heritage as Arabic, as a gay man, then the complication started for me," said Hellu, "because that dichotomy of this two sections of my identity are complex politically."

Hellu also drew upon stories of gay Middle Eastern refugees resettled in San Francisco and 1970s artwork, including Tom of Finland, for inspiration for the images, he said. Many of the Middle Eastern gay men he met didn't want to be photographed. Overcoming his own fears to realize that it wasn't just about him, but many other gay Arab men, Hellu acted as a stand in for the men who couldn't speak for themselves.

"I tried to be cautious, but then I had to stop," said Hellu of his concerns about the dangers of his work shining a light on the myth of Arabs, which is scary in America today, and combining it with gay culture. "[I had to] stop the fear and use the art as a tool not ... as expression, but to have a voice."

He didn't want to censor himself, in contrast to how ISIS tries to silence gay people.

"I want to continue to create work that I feel is important to be seen. I'm not trying to make decorations. That's not why I'm an artist," Hellu said.

He started playing with those ideas of fear and "having an identity that has to be hidden for fear of punishment" and different markers associated with Arabic style, such as beards, mustaches, scarves and veils, as well as gay, leather, and S&M culture in symbolic ways through mixed media.

In one of the images, Hellu is covered in a red veil, but there are many hands, his hands, reaching out from beneath the veil.

"The idea behind the veil is not a woman, it's a man," said Hellu, pointing out the fact that many Middle Eastern gay men are afraid to speak out and be seen. "It's not just one man but it is many men."

Another piece, in the middle of the room in a small box with a peep hole, is a black-and-white video of an Arab man carrying a brightly colored rainbow flag, which is the only color in the short, looped film shot in a silent movie style.

"I can get killed showing this in different parts of the world," said Hellu, who hopes the work will create conversations.


"Once Upon A Time" opens September 6 and runs through October 23 at USF's Thacher Gallery in the Gleeson Library / Geschke Center, 2130 Fulton Street. The exhibit is free to the public and open from noon to 6 p.m. daily.


Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected].