In 2011-12 in London, and her home town of Beirut, Kahil presented her major series In Your Home, a photographic group of nude portraits taken covertly in the living spaces of her friends and acquaintances. In late 2013, an Arabic satellite news channel featured her work as a news-interest story, and encouraged viewers across its 20-nation Middle Eastern audience to make their opinion known through social media. Her 2016 exhibition Anatomy of a Scandal creates an intense and immersive multi-media installation that reflects and interprets the deluge of opinion that followed.
We were able to talk to Kahil about the exhibition, her practice, and the phenomenon of trolling on the female body.
When you first took the images for ‘In Your Home’, what did they mean to you then?
The portraits are part of a series I started a while ago. It was very intuitive. I just started playing with the camera and doing self-portraits when I was in a friend’s house in Berlin whilst he was away for the evening. When I started it, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing, I was just playing around with the camera and making a little game for myself. When it became more systematic over the next 3 years, it became my way of appropriating people’s spaces and grew into a project that had more of an idea behind it. I was collecting all of these stolen moments in people’s homes, within a private domestic space of a person that I was having a brief relationship with, or a friendship with. I ended up taking quote a lot; the actual series was about 36 images. It was a very natural, playful process the way it happened and it grew into something rather than me setting myself something to do; it just happened.
Your early artistic process and resulting images seem to mimic a type of adolescence and innocence as opposed to the new exhibition which shows them post-innocence, having been slandered…
Definitely. Any kind of project with women and self-portraiture tends to get trolled online because it’s a repeatable outlet. I had an article written about my work in the British Journal of Photography and even that got totally trolled on Facebook. Trolling is such a typical reaction to any female body in a work with the female gaze. It’s interesting the way trolling happens online; it’s there and it exists in a physical form documenting that sort of appropriation of the female body. It can be quite violent and very ferocious.
So the portraits went through a type of transformation post-trolling, when you layered elements of the Internet backlash on top of them in the new exhibition?
I call the new exhibition ‘In Your Home 2.0’. It’s an example of what happens when you put work out there and it almost doesn’t belong to you anymore. The work just gets fed into an audience and the readings that get put on to that work take it somewhere else. Sometimes your original intention as an artist isn’t there at all. Usually it’s a very interesting process. I like putting work out there, and people’s reactions add on layers of meaning that I hadn’t even thought about previously; this is really when it’s taken to a grander, mass scale. I knew when I exhibited it in Beirut and Istanbul it was out there and at that time I was ready for a backlash, but it never really happened, it all went really smoothly. All of this Internet stuff happened 2 years later after I’d put the project to rest. Even when the backlash started I didn’t know I was going to do anything about it.
How did the images take on a new meaning in ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’?
It all started when this guy screen-grabbed my website and put it on this international Arabic-speaking news channel. When the media then started posting about me as a scandal, they censored the images. Almost overnight there was this whole new reading of my work and a whole new way of it being displayed visually with all the new elements of censorship on top. The ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ series is limited to very singular images that were widely disseminated. One news channel might have censored a particular image in a certain way, for example just my breasts, then another news channel might have added on another layer of censorship with Photoshop paint over my legs, for example. Suddenly all these images were turning into different variations of themselves.
Was this process of re-appropriating the images a positive experience?
When the backlash was happening, I got loads of emails asking me things such as ‘can we speak on Skype?’ or ‘can we be friends?’ Many talk shows also contacted me asking me to come and defend my work. At the time it was a bit intimidating and my way of dealing with it was to not respond to anything at all, and just collect everything; I collected all the emails and saved all the Facebook comments, including pictures of all the people who commented. At the time I was doing it in a very quiet way for myself. But by taking all of those elements and turning them into material to work with I stopped feeling that onslaught. I had fun doing it; it was my way of re-appropriating that scandal and turning it into something for me.
Did you intend this exhibition to relate to wider feminism debates?
My original ‘In Your Home’ project wasn’t specifically meant to be about the female body so much as the private space of the naked body; it could have been a man’s body, but of course being a female artist you’re put into that discussion straight away whether you want it or not. Just being who I am and doing what I do, I’m going to be part of that whole discussion. Photography for me is a bit of a plaything, I enjoy doing it, and I’m not trying to break down barriers. Women just really have to defend themselves in these situations, for example, you’ve got the Kardashians who are strongly part of that debate because they do it very actively. If you want to be part of that discourse, you have to have balls to have to deal with that, and you do it in your own way. This show is my way of dealing with that discourse.