"The Body Uncovered" at Paris' Arab World Institute aims to "challenge the stereotypes usually associated with the Arab world that reduce it to the single image of religious fanaticism," said the institute's chairman Renaud Muselier.
"It is intended instead to echo the reality of an Arab art scene that despite the conservative climate, exists, dares to overcome taboos and manages to find a place in the global contemporary art scene," he explains in the show catalogue.
Until July 15 the institute bordering the River Seine will display 200 works by 70 modern and contemporary Arab artists, many of them women, which address eroticism, the sensuality of dance, violence, the exploitation of women and homosexuality through sculpture, collage, painting, photography and video. The collection is so dense and varied that it came as a surprise to the exhibit curators.
"We didn't expect to find an iconography so rich and diverse -- we were surprised that so many Arab artists address this question," the show's co-curator Philippe Cardinal told AFP. "When there are social taboos, the role of artists is to unravel them at the seams: they are the first to rebel against censorship."
Many of the artists, though born in Arab countries or of Arab descent, now work out of the United States or Europe, like Huguette Caland, a Lebanese transplant to California whose oil painting was chosen for the show brochure.
A monochromatic close-up of a female back, the 1973 "Self Portrait 1" appears from afar to be just a rectangle of peach colour, but upon closer inspection it is clear the lower edge of the canvas shows the swell of buttock cheeks.
Caland, whose father was the first president of Lebanon, also contributed to the exhibit two 1992 ink drawings entitled "Homage to Pubic Hair I and II" showing multicoloured women with lots of dark pubic hair, as well as a 2010 naked female mannequin with a tattooed body and veiled head.
A canvas by the Egyptian-born New York resident Ghada Amer features colourful string embroidered into what appear to be haphazard shapes, but which were in fact inspired by images out of pornographic magazines -- intended as a comment on the subject of female submission.
Homosexuality, forbidden in Arab countries, is also quietly addressed, including through Lebanese-American George Awde's photographs of young shirtless men in Beirut, expressing tenderness with arms wrapped around one another.
Violence inflicted on the body is another theme of the exhibit, as shown in Iraqi-born Scandinavian exile Adel Abidin's video of a game of ping pong in which a bruised, naked woman lies across the table serving as the net, her body shuddering each time she is hit by a ball.
The woman is "a metaphor for the Iraqi people caught in the midst of war," said Hoda Makram-Ebied, the Egyptian co-curator of the exhibit, who is in charge of contemporary collections at the institute.
Another video, the 2009 "Comradeship" by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled, shows a bodybuilder in tight-fitting bathing pants flexing his muscles at the beach, a man rubbing oil onto another bodybuilder's muscles and another facing a mirror to videotape himself pulling up his shirt to reveal muscle.
The video includes the text -- in both Arabic and English: "I have taken courage to challenge myself and you have taken time to allow this to affect you. The pay off is well worth it."