August 23, 2019
CAIRO — As a child, artist Hany Rashed waited for his father, Salah, to come home so he could sit by him and watch as he unloaded strange objects from bulging pockets. What would he pull out today? Salah Rashed, who worked at Maspero, the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union, mined the streets, shops, and his day-to-day life for things — keys, locks, rosaries, stones — which he kept safe in a closet, declared off limits. When Salah died in 2002, his son inherited this seemingly useless treasure. He rushed to the closet and hungrily opened the plastic bags that indexed the objects. One bag held stamps, another watches, while multicolored buttons snuggled together in another. There had to be a reason why his father had left this collection behind, Rashed figured. It took him years to find out exactly what that reason was.
One of Rashed's most recent art projects is Baba Museum; a Facebook-housed museum dedicated to his father. It features photographs of his collection of objects, some with captions that offer dates or descriptions. In one photo, shot in a Maspero studio on December 12, 1976, Salah Rashed appears with legendary al-Ahly footballer Mahmoud El-Khatib. Another photo shows a thick burgundy necktie with red and white cubes. The page currently has more than 6,700 fans, up about 1,000 followers from just a couple of months ago.
Baba Museum emerges at a time when more and more artists whose work had been politically motivated around the January 25 revolution are turning to the past — both historical and personal — for subject matter and inspiration. "Nostalgia has returned, stronger than ever," Rashed tells me as we sit down for a conversation about the museum at Medrar For Contemporary Art's space in Garden City, Cairo. He is dressed, per usual, in a thin baggy t-shirt and jeans, frenzied brown curls framing his animated face. "This is the perfect time for a project like this."
Hany Rashed is one of Egypt's most prominent and prolific contemporary visual artists, widely exhibited in Cairo galleries and at art fairs and biennales abroad (his work is part of the Tate Modern collection). Though he is considered to be one of the artists who have engaged most fervently with the revolution, his employment of subversive subject matter was limited before 2011 — and not strictly by choice.
There had to be a reason why his father had left this collection behind.
Early on in his career, just as he turned 30, a state security officer came across a poster announcing an upcoming solo show by Rashed, titled Faces of Egypt, at the Mashrabia gallery. Because the portrait on the poster was of a policeman, the officer promptly invited Rashed over to his office for a cup of coffee. The uniformed man in the painting had his back turned to the viewer: "Are you implying that the policeman is turning his back on society?" the state security officer (or aspiring art critic?) had asked Rashed, without really waiting for an answer. He advised Rashed to opt for painting "belly dancers and pretty ladies," the artist told me in 2011, and confessed that he had complied, for fear of retaliation.
In 2013, a little over a decade after Rashed's father died, the artist decided to move his father's treasures objects out of the house and into his studio. Holding these objects in the comfort of his studio, he recalled how much his father liked to show off his collection to anyone who would come for a visit. It was at these moments, when he pulled out his arbitrary treasures and proudly exhibited them to friends and relatives, that Rashed saw a gallerist in his father, maybe even an artist. Surely he hadn't left these objects for his son to hoard, out of sight. "I suddenly realized that he had left this all behind so I would build a museum for him," Rashed says. "I felt that exhibiting his collection for the world to see would make him happy."
Baba Museum was born on May 10, 2013, with a photograph of a minuscule baby shoe, painted red, blue and yellow as Rashed's inaugural upload. Though the shoe was among the father's collection, it had probably belonged to Rashed — our first clue that the project is, in many ways, self-referential. The shoe, Rashed's or his father's, features a black zipper that fastens it completely, in effect rendering the shoe useless. What is the function of a shoe you cannot wear?
To his delight, the objects he posted, no matter how mundane or run-down, drew affection (expressed as likes, shares and comments) from the audience. Rashed quickly realized, however, that the project he launched in 2013 might have to be put on hold for an indeterminate period of time. "It wasn't the right time for Baba Museum. Why? There was a revolution going on," Rashed says. "It meant we wanted to bring down the regime. It meant we wanted to bring down nostalgia. Erase a black past."
After the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-in in Rabea Square was brutally dispersed in the summer of 2013, marking the fall of the group from power, Rashed turned his attention from Baba Museum to another Facebook page, this one called Kalam Amwat, or "Conversations of the Dead." In one of its albums, Rashed collected the final Facebook posts that people killed in the dispersal had written. "I screenshotted their last words; I was like the undertaker of social media," Rashed says.
It was commenting on the revolution as history.
The idea of the archive, and the museum as a form, had intrigued Rashed for years. In December 2013, Rashed put on a show with Ammar Abu Bakr, Ganzeer and Ahmed Hefnawy that was explicitly critical of the military. It was mounted in the crumbling 1890s Viennoise Hotel, where Ganzeer designed an arcade game, satirizing the rampant political conflicts at the time. Abu Bakr spray-painted the walls, evoking his street murals of martyrs and activists. Hefnawy's installation featured rows of empty tear gas canisters, as white clumps of fabric stretched from ceiling to floor. In Rashed's work, miniature blocks of cement, redolent of wall fragments, were coated in mini-murals, posters, and stickers. The work at the Viennoise marked a subtle shift in emphasis: It was commenting on the revolution as history, no longer serving as part of an ongoing mass movement.
The show drew a massive audience, hundreds on some days — many of them young people who heard about the exhibition on Facebook or Twitter — much the same way they would have heard about a protest.
That exhibition was the last time Rashed showed work in Egypt that directly opposed the regime. Soon after, he began planning with Abu Bakr and Ganzeer to exhibit a "Revolution Museum" in an American gallery that would document the events of the January 25 revolution. The 2011 euphoria had long collapsed, as repressive new governments filled in for the old. Artists who had been making work revolving directly around the unfolding revolution were losing their public canvases and audiences. The proposed exhibit was a desperate attempt to stay engaged. But when the media started going after Ganzeer and Abu Bakr, they decided to put off their plans for the Revolution Museum indefinitely.
On December 22, 2014, Rashed uploaded another picture to Baba Museum. It was a Menatel calling card that he had found in his father's pocket when he died. It had LE4.80 in credit. The post marked a brief pause in the page's two-year-plus hiatus; Rashed only posted a couple of photographs that winter, then went back to his silence.
It has only been in the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of months, that Rashed has returned to Baba Museum, posting more photographs of his father's collection to a growing audience. "When the revolution ended, the Sisi regime that emerged was so forceful that people started lamenting the previous Mubarak regime," Rashed says. "It was the return of nostalgia." Surveying the discourse circulating around TV channels, magazines, and the internet — where glorification of the past prevailed — Rashed grew sure that his museum project could thrive. "So I started posting again, and more and more people started interacting with the posts," he says.
If Baba Museum stays static, visitors will stop coming.
Something about Baba Museum comes across as facetious. The name, for one, sounds like an oxymoron; Baba is a somewhat intimate term that immediately conjures a relationship that cannot be neatly displayed or divulged in a catalog or audio tour. Meanwhile the word museum denotes a cold, manicured building with high ceilings and impenetrable glass cases.
Because Rashed is determined to emulate world-class museums, he has been digging into online museum practices for ideas. He recently launched what he is calling a "parallel museum;" an album dedicated to public submissions of objects — or rather photographs of objects — that belonged to departed parents, relatives and friends. He is convinced that if Baba Museum stays static, visitors will stop coming; the page would dry up once he uploads the entire contents of his dad's closet. Issuing a call for submissions would ensure a stream of new content — which Rashed believes "establishes a relationship with the public" and stimulates him personally. "This project is essentially about taking an inanimate object that belonged to someone who has died, and re-contextualizing it to give it value," he says.
It was good to hear Rashed talking about magic, and contemporary art, as he scrolled eagerly through Baba Museum to show me the images of clumped shoelaces, or the Menatel calling card his father has left behind. When he talked about the revolution's end, it was with less bitterness than the conversations we have had over the past eight years. Less bitterness, and more distance — maybe even disengagement. He seems content digging into his late father's pockets for material. Maybe this is it; maybe it's when we extend a hand into a familiar past that the restlessness subsides. Even if just for a moment.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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