Fashion and Androgyny

Rad Hourani famously staged the first ever unisex haute couture show in Paris in 2013, a public act that revolutionised the frontiers of human identity within the rarefied bubble of fashion culture. UNISEX was particularly memorable among a litany of couture pomp for being both aesthetically sharp and highly political. Hourani’s androgynous male and female models walked insouciantly down the Paris runway, avatars in interchangeable luxuriously functional and versatile basics: boys in heels, girls in oversized tailored wool, everyone in black—confidently drawing on the label’s aura, which has been universally unisex since its launch in 2007. These were harbingers of a futurism that has fully arrived today.

Neutrality, an exhibition of multidisciplinary artworks, expands the unisex vision embraced by the fashion world. It serves to familiarise broader culture with Hourani’s world view, one that continues to presciently co-define the zeitgeist. Approached through painting, sculpture, photography, costume, sound and video, this treatise on inclusiveness comes at a time when the world is eerily in need of such a philosophical compass.

Born in Jordan in 1982 to a Jordanian-Canadian father and a Syrian mother, immigrating to Montreal at the age of 16 and then to Paris at the age of 23, Hourani has lived first hand the hyper-contemporary condition of being multicultural, digital and global. As a map that draws on his own biography, Neutrality takes off in a “child’s room” prefaced by a hanging sculpture (Open Doors, 2015) comprised of three open doors which never close, labelled “All Genders”, “All Skin Colours” and “All Social Classes.” The show moves from themes of the openness of childhood through to the increasing judgements and limiting stereotypes of adulthood.

Limitless (2015) recasts the stop sign by giving it and other road signs whose shapes we subliminally understand as warning signs, neon colours. Currency (2015) and Warless (2015), with the literal symbols of a stock share graph and a case full of the metal name tags that soldiers wear to war, take a stab at economic and political fraud. Photographs and short films of black and white bodies, ears and eyes of different shapes and shades, are further statements about the dangers of racism, sexism, and the other “isms” that separate people through categorisation.

16 Commandments (2015), a white canvas highlighting 16 words written in black, takes the trope of the world’s 16 most followed religions and assigns a set of anarchic commandments that underline Hourani’s core concepts on life. Echoing the childlike phase of the show, these are made-up words, verbs that describe elements of our bad sides all ending in “less” – which, if you say them out loud, almost palpably empties them of their negative charge. Lieless, Violentless, Compareless, Consumeless, Hateless and Ignoreless, for example, introduce concepts of how to be a member of this boundless new human community through the act of not-being. The simplicity of these pieces appear to be talismanic reminders of how blind obedience to the laws of our divisive world makes no sense and keeps us bound to principles that are antithetical to the higher octaves of human potential.

Orientations (2015), a standout installation in PVC and UR3 features male and female genitalia piled into a small orgy of varying sizes, shapes and colours. Hourani explains: “relationships should be understood through the emotional bond created between individuals rather than through sexual orientations or skin colours.”  Orientations triumphs the genderless aspect of Hourani’s vision; the DNA of his fashion label—a fact that could hardly be missed in the throng of pre-opening activity where his gang of long-haired boys in heels and cropped-haired girls in suits milled around, making last minute adjustments to the featured art and designs.

Although he has been exhibiting art alongside designing garments since his career began, showing in venues from Art Dubai to the Pompidou via Tate Modern, Hourani’s artwork feels less substantial than his fashion. If as a philosophy this artwork is an attentive study of the laws that limit human potential—the potential to transcend race, class, religious, cultural and linguistic affiliations and all borders that prevent union, equality and empathy, the means that is proffered to tangibly connect to this potential is buying the clothes. This may seem to counter the Consumeless commandment, but as essential fashion basics that are made in ethical conditions in the first world, and as practical ways of aligning to the tribal unisex branding on offer, this is an attractive proposal.

In a contemporary world where anxiety, flux and fear make us want to reinforce boundaries in an effort to regain safety, Hourani’s oeuvre reminds us that this urge is outdated and dysfunctional. Rad’s genderless aficionados transcend these boundaries, and make the audience feel as though they, too, might be capable of affecting change. There is a riddle here to be solved, which makes this provocative art on point.

Caia Hagel

Rad Hourani: Neutrality, until 17 January 2016, at Arsenal Contemporary Art Center, 2020 William Street, Montreal.

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1. Rad Hourani, Neutrality installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Arsenal Contemporary Art Center.