From activist art about Palestinian children to academic articles on homocolonialism

Meet Andrew Delatolla, an artist, activist and an academic wing-person.


7 June 2021

Andrew’s path into academia was unlike that of most scholars of International Relations.  When starting his undergraduate degree in fine arts in Toronto, he probably didn’t think he would end up getting a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE), one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Yet, this is exactly what happened.

I catch Andrew in his London home – not surprisingly, a large painting adorns the wall behind him.

Andrew Delatolla painting "distortions"
Distortions by Andrew Delatolla (2010)

He is a considered speaker. He weighs his words carefully, never rushing, always providing context to the points he makes. Our conversation meanders through a range of topics: we talk about homocolonialism, power dynamics, inclusion and exclusion across academia, and the hurdles young academics commonly face. 

Walls, inclusion and exclusion have been recurrent themes in Andrew’s work, as well as the heavy focus on the region his Lebanese grandparents were born. As an undergraduate fine arts student, his thesis work included large-scale painting installations that referenced the history of military occupation, and the military detainment and torture of Palestinian children by the Israeli Defence Forces – a topic just as relevant in 2021 as in 2010, the year he graduated.

“In hindsight,” he says, “I should’ve probably thought more strategically about this, going from one bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting to another bachelor’s degree in political science,” but those extra years in education have proven to be valuable in terms of personal development. 

Finding your way through the jungle of academia is a daunting task for young academics. “It’s scary, it’s intimidating, you don’t want to say the wrong thing.” The Canadian art student-turned-political-scientist felt out of place among ex-military staff enrolled in a master’s degree at the more conservative War Studies Department of King’s College London. Discussing his journey through academia, I sense a whiff of nostalgia as he recollects his time as a PhD student at the LSE. Here, he was lucky enough to be part of a group of students who would look after each other at academic conferences. “Almost like an academic wing-person,” he jokes.

He stresses how important help from established academics is when you’re just getting started. Being already familiar with the system, they should extend a hand to their emerging counterparts. “Even if it’s just a ‘Hello, how are you’, that signals to people that they should be comfortable in this space, and that they’re welcome to take up space. That doesn’t happen as often as it should in academia.” 

Knowing what it’s like to feel like an outsider, Andrew takes matters into his own hands. He was the previous chair of the LGBTQA Caucus of the International Studies Association. Under his leadership, the caucus developed a mentorship programme, where junior scholars are matched with more senior scholars. Though they decide themselves how to fill in the mentorship, Andrew hopes that this breaks down some of the entry barriers, and that the matches will lead to co-authorship in the future. 

As a queer scholar, you often move in very heteronormative spaces. “There is a lot of masculinity to a lot of these academic spaces, which doesn’t just impact queer scholars, but also female scholars. That in itself just puts up walls for people.”

However high, these walls weren’t high enough to keep Andrew from progressing in his academic career. Tomorrow, Andrew launches his first book, on state-making in Lebanon and Syria. To be precise, he explores how the nation-state was carved by French imperialism, not only deepening French economic interests in the region as well as control over the Syrian interior, but how it was created in relation to racial hierarchies and notions of civilization. 

This has left both countries with deep scars: In the case of Lebanon, the legacy is a deeply sectarian and fragmented political system. Though sectarianism dates back to before the period of the French mandate, Andrew argues in his book that the French intentionally exploited this fragmentation to their advantage by racialising and granting economic advantages to the Christian groups with whom they formed alliances.

Sectarianism is not the only social structure inherited from the period of European imperialism. Homocolonialism is another one – one that you might not have heard about until now.

Before the period of European imperial control, in many regions homosexuality wasn’t penalised as a carceral offence, which it was at the time in Europe. In the UK, for example, engagement in homosexual acts was punishable by death until the 1860s. Similar legal systems were then exported to the former colonies, where queer intimacy in some cases was viewed in different ways than in Europe. It might have been acceptable in some circumstances, frowned upon under others, but not punishable by death.

Nowadays, views in Europe have (somewhat) shifted, and international organisations tend to use the legal safeguards for LGBTQ rights as a benchmark to measure societal progress. “We have certain blind spots with regards to how we view queer life in the Global South,” says Andrew. The consequence is that the agency of local communities and actors is stripped away. “We fail to see that the subtlety of sexuality as present, and that those subtleties are ways of pushing back against violent governments and homophobic laws.” International organisations should work together with queer communities in the countries they operate in. Currently, these organisations are not well-equipped to navigate such spaces and communities, because they stick to particular notions of freedom and emancipation. 

“What comes out of this is not just the push against governments to drop laws that explicitly criminalise homosexuality which, I would argue, is a good thing, but they are also highlighting that these governments don’t have gay marriage or civil partnership on the books.” In some ways, that is problematic because it can end up doing a disservice to local queer communities, who might be grappling with more pressing issues than the legalisation of gay marriage.

Andrew’s work serves as a solid background check for international organisations. A nuanced conceptualisation of queer intimacy outside Europe and North America, combined with an understanding of statehood grounded in (imperial) history is key for foreign organisations working with local communities. In the meantime, I look at the clock and notice we’ve been talking for 1,5 hours instead of the scheduled 45 minutes. One thing is for sure: Andrew’s work, whether artistic or academic, leaves you with food for thought for considerable time to come.

Read a practice-oriented summary of Andrew’s article on homocolonialism on Acume through this link.