Behold derives its name from the twelfth image in the series, a well-toned man reaching to his reflection in the mirror, the action in turn reflected in another mirror. The gesture is reminiscent of the myth of Narcissus reaching vainly to his own beautiful reflection in a pool of water. While his face is obscured, the photograph captures the subject’s body in the two mirrors, each reflecting different aspects of the shadowy figure. Such a composition speaks volumes about the thin line dividing public and private space in the clandestine pleasure grounds of the sex-on-premises venue.
The layering of privacy—and the context of public-private divides—looms large in the Behold series: its production, its subject matter and, ultimately, in its exhibitive disclosure as a series of work to the public at large. The public-private divides that typically rule a social world which mixes intimacy with anonymity are, at least ostensibly, on display for the world to see.
The series documents a group of friends who invited artist Hoda Afshar to photograph them. The men perform the rituals of picking one another up as well as interacting with the queer bath house attendants, who worked at the Middle Eastern bath house that has since been demolished.
Documenting the rituals of the bath house, Afshar describes the production of the images as highly collaborative; the men actively posed and directed what they wanted captured, while she manipulated shafts of light penetrating the space from the small ceiling windows to variously expose and obscure the figures she photographed. Within the public-private divides that such a space typically entails, this collective photographic process layers two separate modes of disclosure. It sees the photographic subjects/commissioners actively disclosing—if in a reconstructed way—their own private lives, while Afshar’s manipulation of light functions to disclose the visceral experience that is being performed.
What is not disclosed by Afshar, however—beyond the broad identifier of the Middle East—is the location in which the scenes take place. Afshar’s choice to maintain the privacy of the participants runs counter to the intentions of the group, who wished to divulge the location as an act of defiance. Already negotiating many layers of public-private divides, the issue of non/disclosure subtly invokes different cultural sensibilities, contrasting the wishes of the inhabitants of the bath house with Western attitudes to what is deemed ethical or acceptable in the public sphere. This underscores the complexity of Afshar’s decisions in choosing what of this inner life is revealed to the viewer.
The difficulties associated with the depiction of homosexuality in the Middle East are many. On the one hand, narratives of deviant male hyper-sexuality build on Orientalist images of the bath house, harem or other spaces with sexual associations (imagined or otherwise). On the other hand, notions of queer Middle Eastern victimhood stem from that same assumption of deviancy and a consequent subtext of liberal white saviourhood.
The success of the Behold series, in some ways, is the quiet reminder that the Orientalist antecedents of today’s saunas in the West are rooted in the fashionable late nineteenth-century Turkish baths of Europe. The infamous Savoy Turkish Baths in London’s Jermyn Street is a prime example. The Western adoption of the Turkish baths as a site for male sexual activity reflected the perceived permissive nature of Middle Eastern society at the time. The Ottoman Empire did, after all, decriminalise homosexuality in 1858, almost 140 years before its complete decriminalisation in all Australian jurisdictions. In this light, Afshar’s disclosure of the bath house is not an orientalised ‘unveiling’ of the space so much as a quiet reinstatement of these men’s private lives. As much as our Narcissus stares into the mirror, it is not his obscured visage that is reflected back to us, but a trace—in multiple dimensions—of what is now a forgotten cultural history.
Sary Zananiri is an artist and cultural historian at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He is the co-editor with Karène Sanchez Summerer of Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens 1918–1948 and European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians: Between Contention and Connection 1918–1948, both available in open access.