Lewis blurs the division between the two sexes, and beautifies the nuances in between. “On the Road” portrays two fully veiled women operating a motorcycle at high speed, in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive. A mosque filling the rear view mirror renders the gesture all the more rebellious and exciting. Speeding against the wind in the opposite direction of Islam, then, these women are hardly confined to their Western conceived ‘oppressive’ regimen. Aggressively rumbling, controlling the motor of freedom, Arabian women are not crying victims. While the laws of the Gulf are quintessentially rigid compared with their Levantine, Maghrebi, Iraqi or Egyptian neighbors, they find freedom through fantasy in public, and dress better than most westerners in private. Inverting sexual norms, because Lewis inspired them to, these ladies pledge allegiance to health, courage, and drive.
The linearity of sexually prescribed roles is further disrupted in “Burkini Beach”, which captures a woman suavely baring her thighs, belly and panties in the sea. Supple light flesh enticingly contrasts with her dark-veiled arms, neck, head and modest female companion. Sultry lips, parted as though she were singing or sending coy kisses to the camera, the innocent yet bold woman’s fashionable lasciviousness invites love. Transcending stereotypes of confined, subservient Arabian women, free-spirited seductress moves us to questions our Western ideals. Beauty is mystery and contrast; bare-it-all bikinis lack the sublime textures and color inflections cast ever so delicately by the dark burqa against flesh, water and sun.
Reconciling differences is best displayed through the photo, “Ambiguity Embraced.” A solo man stands richly toweled. Head retreated sub-blanket into what appears to be an octopus-like arm cradle; I guessed that it was one man. Apparently women who really want children see a man with baby, while gay men see two men enthralling each other. Either way, it tells the story of how everybody wants to be embraced. It focalizes the notion of reconciling differences, empathy, in the gesture of a long, deep embrace.
To conclude, Lewis’ exhibition is refreshing. It’s not too often people fly and spend years infiltrating the jewels of the Arabian Gulf. While issues of sexuality exist in every culture, Lewis articulates numerous facets of one softly controversial issue of sexuality, but mostly works to communicate and share the beauty it inspired in him. The fashion industry surely loves a play on fabric, a re-costuming or an innovative dance equipped with veils, scarves and gowns.
“While the sensuality is very beautiful between Arabs, there are parts of it that should not and cannot be revealed”, says Lewis, who—is holding back so much, in fear of tapping scandal or controversy. “Gender Bender” truly encapsulates the complexities of light created by a cross dresser’s maneuvering a mirror into different vantage points. Set behind a curtain, Lewis constructs his own protective veil by keeping us wondering what incredible people he encountered and inspired. If there’s anything anyone could learn from the exhibit, it is that mystery is supremely alluring.