Soufiane Ababri - Haunted Lives | Praz-Delavallade

This spring, the big show in Paris is a vast Delacroix retrospective at the Louvre, a fittingly lush and lavish tribute to the great Romantic painter. Of course the exhibition includes Delacroix’s sexy genre paintings from his stay in North Africa - those shadowy oil paintings of exotic, inscrutable, yet clearly sexually available women. But there’s a funny (and much sexier) riposte to all that across town, in a debut exhibition from Tangiers-born Sofiane Ababri.

Why a riposte? Consider the differences between the two exhibitions. While Delacroix tends towards monumental paintings of historical scenes and lithographs of canonical novels and plays, Ababri prefers modest crayon on paper drawings, showing domestic scenes. Delacroix’s lecherous eye was drawn to curvy women; Ababri enjoys muscular men. Those 19th century North African women were firmly contextualised by the artist’s own dictatorial desires; Ababri’s subjects, on the other hand, are smilingly in on the joke.

Installation view

There’s one thing the artists’ portraits have in common, though: they like to portray their subjects in bed. (Ababri says that he prefers to draw these works while lying in bed himself.)

At Praz-Delavallade, the gallery space is painted pink, with the walls broken up by selfie-friendly mirrors. This reflects (ha!) the charming narcissism of Ababri’s subjects: a thin blonde boy and an impressively-endowed older man: a self portrait, if Google images is any guide.

Ababri’s also playing with a whole extra set of stereotypes, beyond the enslaved and exoticised oriental bodies portrayed by Delacroix. There’s also the white gay fantasy of the virile Arab, slyly inverted by one larger drawing, in which Ababri cheekily writhes in bed, one hand proudly palpating his own ass, in a kind of mocking auto-objectification. Far from submissive, he looks directly at us, or would do if his eyes weren’t scrunched shut with mischief. And, also, isn’t Ababri’s decision to have his subjects - when clothed - dress in tracksuits and hoodies a deliberate jab at the white French phobia for suburb-dwelling North African boys?

In an interview, the artist points out something I didn’t notice at the time: that, despite their proud nudity, the men in his drawings tend to be blushing. Is it because their reclining poses are making them feel overly… feminine?

“It is a time when their bodies are getting rid of the social pressure that society demands for them to be male,” Ababri said. By blushing, “the body betrays itself in this intimacy of the drawing”.

Intimacy, that’s it! Looking at these little drawings, you feel an intimacy, maybe a complicity, with their subjects. You are invited to share it with them. For Delacroix, as beautiful and impressive as his ladies remain, consent was never a concern.

Soufiane Ababri - Haunted Lives is at Praz-Delavallade (Paris). 5 May - 16 June 2018.