Viewings for Women Only: The Creation of Homosocial Space through Art Exhibitions in the Arab Gulf

By Elizabeth Derderian
Submitted to Session P2749 (Mediating Desire: Female Homosociality in the Modern Middle East, 2011 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
When the new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi held an initial exhibition of Picasso in 2008, organizers elected to schedule regular viewings restricted to women. The press statement noted that this is a "regional custom to allow women to socialize - and that its inclusion in the retrospective's schedule was meant as a peace offering to the community."
My paper explores the creation of homosocial spaces and their intersection with art, museums, and global politics. I examine the ways in which certain works of art are perceived to be problematic or sexual when viewed in mixed gender settings, and what this solution says about constructions and elicitations of desire. Same-sex settings are seen as neutralizing potentially inflammatory works - does this mean that works are perceived as dangerous not for their inherent content but in their moment and space of their witnessing? Thus, I explore the varying and shifting legibilities of works when they are framed and viewed in different spaces and constructs.
I argue this event demonstrates an attempt by the exhibition organizers, who have links to the Emirati government, to embed museum-going and art viewing behaviors within what Bourdieu would consider the habitus, customs perceived to be established and comfortable for local women. Interviews with Gulf female art visitors and examining other women-only activities for socializing helps to more fully contextualize this practice. This research explores this instance of female homosocial space in relation to similar phenomena in other communities, such as the Aboriginal Australian community, that restrict and divide viewings of art works by gender, drawing on the work of Fred Myers; it also explores the ways that art has previously created homosocial spaces and opened the topic of same-sex desire in Qajar art.