In the posthumously published Incidents (1987), Roland Barthes organized much of what he wrote about his experiences in Tangiers around what he termed “les deux Hs,” hashish and homosexuality. While the essayist offered very explicit descriptions of both, Marc-Antoine Serra, in the images he present in Backroom, works in the much richer vein of what the literary critic Joseph Boone has identified as the homoerotics of Orientalism, a figurative world in which the pungent smoke of hash resin has long been a crucial factor.
Associations between foreignness and exaggerated eroticism, even perversity, exist in discussions about sexuality in most modern societies. Yet in Western countries, notably France, the links made between the Muslim world and the homoerotic, even the homosexual, have been particularly intense. This has much to do with the French occupation of Algeria (1830-1962), and, later, Tunisia (1881-1956) and Morocco (1912-1956). It is part of the more general phenomenon that Edward Said named Orientalism, in which “Western” descriptions of the (Muslim) “Orient” insisted on stark differences between Easterners and Westerners in order to anchor Western claims to normalcy and superiority.
Representations of different ways of living male sexuality promise both excitement and danger, and erotic photographic and cinematic images of male subjects have made great use of Orientalized bodies. The Baron von Gloeden dressed several of the Sicilian boys he photographed so assiduously in “Arab” garb. The late 1920s French pornographic film “Mektoub, Fantasie Arabe” turned its focus briefly from harem girls to show the sexual domination of the French tourist “Dickie” by the sheik Abd-el-Zab and his male servant. Numerous films by Jean-Daniel Cadinot also explored this terrain.
The young men in this collection of Serra’s photographs compellingly bring together two distinct registers with which previous images long played: the hypervirile, on one hand, the ephebe, on the other. There is nothing here, however, of either the brute or the passive effeminacy that usually inheres in one or the other. The titles but also the separation between the young men’s eyes and their (circumcised) penises situate them clearly in present-day France. Their nudity is only frontal and it fulfills only some racialized fantasies. These are images for a postcolonial France, of a society where, from “l’affaire Théo” to “l’affaire Meklat” and in the fulminations of Zemmour, Renaud Camus, or Houellebeq and the ruminations of Edouard Louis or Kamel Daoud, young men linked to Africa, North or sub-Saharan, continue to draw much attention.