Nour Elbasuni, by Lara Arafeh

Envisioning a world that speaks to the needs and aspirations of Arab society, Nour Elbasuni proposes a perspective that is both delicate and a challenge to the status quo. Born and raised in a society that reinforces patriarchal gender roles and conflates masculinity with dominance, Nour observes her community and depicts emotive narratives to propose a collective cultural healing. The history of social dynamics in the Arab world is crucial in understanding the complexities faced today in our societies. At the forefront of the feminist movement in the region, artists and creatives have been using their practice for activism and protest. Feminism in art has evolved from the 1960s like Ingi Efflatoun to the more recent new wave that emerged with the Arab Uprisings and furthermore through social media. Responding to the aggressive and unfair treatment of women, artists from younger generations, like Nour, present a crucial reflection of the changes needed for growth and healing.

Driven by her attentive observation, Nour stages her male subjects in domestic settings to connect them to their emotional, softer sides. These moments give room for men to visualize a space to escape their designated and performative roles, creating different perspectives of masculinity. Through her journey of learning and unlearning aspects of the culture she was exposed to, Nour suggests a world that can make space for men to find comfort in all aspects of their identities, highlighting and praising the softer overlooked aspects of their lives.

Her paintings are not a way to escape reality, but a way to make room for an alternative reality. Nour observed that, from a young age, boys are taught to be men before they are taught to be humane and are cornered into playing a repertoire of actions and emotions dictated by social rules. Anything that is in tune with emotions, softness, and creativity is associated with being feminine, and thus weak and inferior. Moving past repressing their femininity requires a healthy and safe environment for contemplation. Over time, artists around the world have found comfort in the depiction of men through the female gaze, a reversal of the typical scenes of women seen through the male gaze. Nour’s perspective on Arab society and the merging of feminine and masculine reminds us that both dimensions are present in every human being. With the hopes of normalizing images of men embracing their feminine side, the paintings provide space needed for self-reflection and introspection.

We see this played out in one of her recent works, Sulwan (2022). Drawing on influences of the Baroque period, the tragic energy of the painting is emphasized by her sophisticated use of shading and intense framing. The two front figures stand out in contrast to the flatter figures in the back. Their closeness and somber expressions draw the viewers in. Devoid of the context, we are left to question the story. What is relayed in this painting is an image of strong ‘masculine’ men experiencing intense emotion while crying. Merging masculine traits with feminine emotions shows how Nour succeeds at showing the sensitivity of men in such a beautiful and delicate way. The importance of this moment is the normalizing of something that has been seen as shameful.

The narrative Nour is implying shows a stark difference from the stereotypical depictions of Arabs, specifically Arab men, in western culture and media. These paintings humanize and normalize the depiction of men in a sensitive manner. This representation can be placed in the larger movement of inclusivity that has been traversing contemporary visual art. Although the art world is still mined with inequalities, art history is undoubtedly being enriched with figures that were long absent from it. Through their practice, artists long considered to be at the margins of art history are rewriting the euro-centric male narrative, reframing it to include those who were misrepresented, orientalized, and fetishized. Women’s voices have been restrained, and in many cases in the art world, still are. The female gaze is crucial in this context. Being able to see art through a feminine perspective, and the ‘rediscovering’ of women artists makes room for the women in art today.

Observing Nour’s work, the use of symbols and motifs is present in most paintings. Her work has evolved since her college work, but the use of symbols and motifs is a constant to relay messages of empowerment and healing. Flowers, traditional clothing, and pop icons enhance the cultural messaging and the personal relationship to these moments. In Baba (2022), we see a father holding his child. Their clothing is intentionally ambiguous to remain relevant to men from the Arab world in general and not to a specific community. The flowers subtly placed around the background and in the foreground of the father and child successfully juxtapose the femininity of the flowers with the masculinity of the father and son.

Flowers are also a recurring motif in Friday Afternoon (2021). Vinca flowers are seen everywhere in Qatar while the laundry lines are from her memory of visiting Egypt. This reflects Nour’s identity in belonging, not depicting any painting to be representative of a specific nation. Here, we are placed outside the private space of the house and are looking in. Suggestive of a cinematic still— think rural settings with women looking out of the window— the moment feels familiar and safe. By replacing the women with men and through the vagueness of the setting, this painting shines a light on the similarities between the experiences of Arabs and the rest of the world, and between men and women.

Channeling Greek mythology, Sons of Endymion (2021) shows a birds-eye view of three men on a bed. Endymion, in Greek mythology, was a beautiful young man who chose to spend much of his life in perpetual sleep so that he could remain beautiful, even over being king. Here, Nour is referencing how many young men in the region spend much of their time sleeping as a form of escapism from social pressure and emotional stress. She reframes their sleep to remove the shame from it, acknowledge the time and care needed to heal. Endymion’s identity is debated, he was either a shepherd, a hunter, a king, or even an astronomer. Cobalt blue dominates the painting. It is not somber, nor is it sensual, it feels calm and natural. The man on the top right holds a flower in one hand and a religious book in the other, a composition that equates the act of prayer with the softness of the flower. Hung in the background is a photo of Nancy Ajram, the famous pop icon and idol of young men in the 2000s, creating a juxtaposition that leans into the cultural commonalities of the adoration of a cultural icon. Nour uses careful compositions to urge the viewer to question what makes them uncomfortable about images of men embracing a feminine side.

In her college work, Nour questioned the work of the Orientalist painters’ representation and fetishization of women and Arabs. She scrutinized regional acceptance of pre-and post-colonial perceptions of her cultures by depicting ancient female deities. The women embodied the varying cultures of the Arab world and create visuals of women in a dignified state. Those paintings counter the Orientalist tropes that objectified Arab women with the male gaze, an alternative to the figures of submission and lust. Across these paintings, the constant messaging of empowering women and making space for emotions in men remains present.

Through her focus on domesticity and the female gaze, Nour gesticulates at the larger story of Arab society, seen from the inside and outside. While personal and tender, the idiosyncratic gaze is widened to encompass the needs of society. By creating an alternative perspective to the depiction of Arab men and women, Nour creates space for society to heal.