Unlike the average artist-provocateur, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou strives for ambiguity. Taking advantage of his dual identity—with a Spanish, Catholic mother, a Muslim father, and an upbringing split between Morocco and France—Lahlou works at the crossroads of cultural identities and religious practices, to address issues of gender and sexuality. Through cheeky yet insightful artworks, installations, and performances, he displays a flair for ironic juxtapositions, that have been known to set his audience (and entire communities) on edge. At the age of 27 Lahlou was already creating a stir with works like Koranic Inlay and Biblical Inlay—nude self-portrait photographs with passages from the Bible and the Koran projected onto his body—and later, Cocktail or Self-Portrait in Society—an installation of Muslim prayer rugs interrupted by a pair of conspicuous red high-heels.
Lahlou sets himself apart, though, by excluding any traces of a political agenda. Preying on stereotypes and taboos in a bold, unequivocal, and often humorous light, he leaves the takeaway up for interpretation. The artist explains, “I’m not an activist shouting. I am truly respectful of religions and beliefs, except when they kill or hurt people,” he told ARTINFO in 2012. “As a person, I have a political opinion, I take a position or I don’t. But in my work, I don’t want it to be like that. I want people to be in an awkward position and not know what’s happening, whether it’s humor or reality, true or false.”
More often than not, Lahlou is the subject of his works, from performances to sculptures. In an especially dynamic installation, 72 Vierges (72 Virgins), the artist created 72 casts of his own bust, and covered them with white veils. His performances, which have only developed his enfant terrible credo, range from brief, contained situations—wild flamenco dancing in a public square, praying with a pile of bricks on his back, balancing a Koran on his head while eating a banana—to elaborate, endurance-testing commitments like walking 18.5 miles in his signature red pumps (a performance he recreated for the 2011 Venice Biennale) or keeping up dramatic arm movements for seven hours, which essentially threw his back out.
In the midst of exhibitions at Lynden Sculpture Garden, a group show in Brussels, DAK’ART 2014, Art Brussels, and Art Paris, Lahlou’s newest project comes to fruition this week at New York’s Catherine Ahnell Gallery. The solo exhibition “in cha’Allah,”—introduced with the artist’s take on the Arabic expression for “God willing,” in neon—is the result of a monthlong residency at the gallery. Over the next month visitors will be given the opportunity to experience his newest installations and live performances, the latest iterations of his endless pursuits of provocation.
“in-cha’Allah” is on view at Catherine Ahnell Gallery, New York, Mar. 27th–Apr. 20th, 2014.