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  • Reversing the Domestic GazeChaza Charafeddine’s Maidames Exhibition in Beirut
  • Yasmine Nachabe Taan (bio)

Lebanese human rights activists see the Kafala system as a staggering social problem, which many have likened to a system of slavery. Currently supported by the Ministry of Labor, migrant workers are required to have a host-country sponsor, who is responsible for maintaining their legal status and controlling their mobility. The institution leaves a growing community of migrant workers, mostly women employed in domestic service, with no legal rights to escape abusive employers and poor working conditions, rendering them vulnerable to sexual, verbal, and physical abuse on a daily basis.

Between October 11 and November 10, 2018, the Beirut-based contemporary artist Chaza Charafeddine (b. 1964) sought to destabilize the power dynamics between migrant domestic workers and their employers in Maidames, a series of twenty 55×80cm photo-portraits, printed with archival ink on special photo paper and framed with UV filter glass, exhibited at the Agial Gallery in Beirut (see Agial Art Gallery n.d.). Other Beirut-based artists before her have launched awareness campaigns to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers and document this rising and overlooked social injustice in the absence of responses from the Lebanese government to the violation of migrant workers’ rights.1 While related, Charafeddine’s intent was different from these previous artists’ efforts to promote justice. Instead of focusing on the miserable life migrant domestic workers endure in Lebanon, Charafeddine portrayed them as TV celebrities and popular figures in glamorous settings. Prior to the photo shoot, Charafeddine conducted a series of interviews with the domestic workers who were to appear in her photos. During the interviews she showed them a large selection of images of celebrities and asked each migrant [End Page 87] worker to enact the personality of her choice to make her dreams a reality for the moment of the photograph. By letting them choose the personalities that inspired them, she restored the migrant women’s agency. The making of this exhibition involved playacting, theatricality, and the use of props in staging the photos. By portraying the domestic workers in assertive poses, confronting the viewer, Charafeddine aimed at restoring their autonomy as individuals in their own right. As she attempted to reverse roles by reshuffling the system of visual dynamics, her photographs opened a dialogue and possible negotiations about the migrant workers’ identity.

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Figure 1.

Miss Vera, 50 × 80 cm photograph printed with archival ink on fine art paper/dibond, edition 5.

Migrant domestic workers, like Melany, Vera, Bruktayt, and Ruby, are generally expected to be submissive and unnoticed— even invisible to their employers. In Charafeddine’s photographic space, in contrast, they seem to transcend their daily conditions through their dignified presence. In one of the portraits of the exhibition, Melany impersonates a duchess wearing a Victorian dress, sitting comfortably in a royal chair situated in a heavily decorated interior. In another portrait Vera, dressed à la Jackie O in an elegant suit, gracefully looks down at us, waiting for the photographer to take the shot so she can go back to reading her book (fig. 1). Bruktayt adopts masculine behavior and dress, masquerading as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo while holding a long cigarette (fig. 2). With a turban on her head, Ruby plays the oud in an Oriental setting (fig. 3). [End Page 88]

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Figure 2.

Bruktayt as Marlene Dietrich, 80 × 55 cm photograph printed with archival ink on fine art paper/dibond, edition 5.

[End Page 89]

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Figure 3.

Ruby playing the Oud, 50 × 80 cm photograph printed with archival ink on fine art paper/dibond, edition 5.

This is not the first time photographs have been used to reflect on the ambiguous status of women throughout history in the Arab region. In 1923, in an attempt to counter fixed interpretations of the Arab woman as passive and to resist restrictions imposed on women’s liberty, such as their mobility and attire, the feminist and Egyptian nationalist Huda Shaarawi and her peers staged a public unveiling at a Cairo train station...


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pp. 87-93
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