The definitions surrounding gender and its expression are constantly evolving. Living in a visual society means being surrounded by images, each with their own message and these daily communications have the responsibility to represent diversity. Amongst previous conservative backdrops, we can see how far the population has travelled towards equality; the traditional concept of categorising human life is progressively diminishing. However, our collective history and current circumstances can often be less than forgiving about expressions of difference. As such, there remains work to be done. With widespread movements around LGBT+ rights, the present day is a critical time for breaking boundaries. If art represents the transitions within culture, what are we learning about systematically labelling bodies?
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery marks 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts passed in England and Wales (1967 Sexual Offences Act), on 27 July 1967. From Derek Jarman and Steve McQueen to Anya Gallaccio and Zanele Muholi, the artists presented across 100 works have explored common thematic concerns since the act was passed. Charlotte Keenan, Curator of British Art at National Museums Liverpool, says, “Showcasing the results of several years of research, it will make visible the themes of sexuality, gender identity and queerness that lie at the heart of some of Britain’s most significant contemporary works. The exhibition also forms part of an even greater ambition for us; to make queer British art and its importance to history permanently visible within our galleries.” As referenced by Keenan the benefits of gender studies are promising; the field presents researchers and innovators with fertile ground for collaboration and investigation.
Photographer and self-proclaimed visual activist, Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) explores the intersection between black lesbian and gay identities and politics in South African civilisation. The Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) was co-founded by the practitioner in 2002 and is dedicated to providing a safe space for women to avail of support. By extension her photography is another feat of activism. Her approach documents the trajectory of queer identities for future generations. The images are acts of defiance and statements of change, targeting the problems of discrimination and prejudice at the source. For the series Faces and Phases (2006-11), Muholi photographed lesbian communities. She notes, “The portraits are at once a visual statement and an archive marking, mapping, and preserving an often invisible community for posterity.” The sensitive pieces challenge prevalent stigmas and debunk the common rhetoric that homosexuality is a betrayal of ideals from traditional and conventional African communities. Despite the pervading sense of negativity that surrounds this struggle for equality, the works are devoid of tension. Instead, they focus on presenting those that identify as LGBTQ+, as individuals to encourage unity.
Further examples include performance pieces by Paul Maheke and Nail Transphobia by activist Charlie Craggs. Whilst offering free manicures, Craggs chats to visitors, encouraging them to ask questions about her experience as a trans woman. This act of opening up dialogues addresses some common misconceptions. Gay Bar Directory by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings is an AV piece presenting footage of 180 bars across the UK, intended as a response to the gentrification of the gay scene in London. Co-artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s I Want (2015) is also included as a new acquisition through Art Fund’s New Collecting Award scheme. This film installation, featuring Sharon Hayes, is based on a script that plagiarises from the texts of feminist poet Kathy Acker, as well as whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. As a pioneer of the transgressional punk subculture, Acker challenges the phallogocentric power structures of language by using her work as a platform for controversial topics. Also an installation from John Walter’s Alien Sex Club (2017) includes tarot card readings, designed to encourage conversation and raise awareness around HIV.
The event, as a whole, presents gender as a broader social and cultural subject encapsulating race, sexual orientation, historical implications, social conditioning and economy structures. Coming Out forms part of an even greater ambition; to catalyse the progression of equality and shatter illusions. Therefore, it is not only desired, but necessary.
From 28 July until 5 November. Further information can be found at: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk
1. Zanele Muholi, Hlonipha Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/ Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.