'I am not an abomination!' proclaims the work of artist Paul Chisholm, one of the 20 artists selected to show in this year's visual arts exhibition, as part of the fifth annual GFEST. Taking place at venues across London, this LGBTQ arts festival tackles a range of themes relating to gender, sexuality, and identity, through the media of visual arts, short films, performances, workshops, and debates. Although not necessarily LGBT or Q themselves, the artists whose work has been included all deal with what can broadly be defined as queer subject matter. Not that this should be seen as limiting, or as uninteresting to the wider public – certainly not – after all, questions of identity, worries about which aspects of ourselves we choose to hide or reveal, and the reinforcement or suppression resulting from society's approval or disapproval, are issues which concern us all.
Take, for example, Simon Croft's Inside Out, Outside In, a set of seven Russian dolls decorated in mosaics of broken mirror. A gender neutral figure, only taking on an identity when its surface is painted, these dolls' identities remain undefined, changing depending on the standpoint of the onlooker who may, in fact, see more of his own reflection than of the doll. The mosaics are incomplete, with missing pieces and jagged shards, suggesting those parts of ourselves which remain concealed and the resultant fragmentation of the soul.
A similar theme is echoed in Francesca Alaimo's poignant photograph, The Green Room, showing her own androgynous reflection, face hidden, hugging herself tight, back home in her parents' bathroom: a space of becoming, of preparing to emerge and be seen by the world, the mirror and curtain symbolic of that which is revealed and that which is concealed. Vulnerable and caught in the act, is the posture one of self love or shame?
More specifically gender-oriented works include Art Racket's Bob The Hermaphrodyke-Transfag, Bridget Orlando's The Wrestler, and Boa Swindler's A Secretary (After Sander), each of which plays with notions of gender ambiguity, gender roles, and, in the case of Swindler, the “high society 'sport' of gender checking”. The image, based on August Sander's famous photograph from 1931 and referencing the Weimar era Drag Queens, is seemingly equally pertinent in modern day London, given a comment overheard by the artist on the tube the other week: 'You can tell it's transgender because of the shoes!'
Whilst it is not the purpose of the exhibition to be political or to make a stand for equality, The Trope Troupe provides a shocking insight into the ongoing criminalisation of homosexuality around the world. A small size computer screen departures board, Departures 3.02 lists six pages of destinations along with the horrific punishments still imposed, ranging from death by stoning in Islamabad and Tehran, to 20 years and whipping in Kuala Lumpur, and 25 years in Port of Spain. Eye-opening and upsetting, this serves as a reminder of why LGBTQ issues are still in need of attention.
But let's not end on a negative thought. Overall, the exhibition is a celebration, not just of all things queer, but of some wonderful art, thought-provoking, poignant, and germane to all. Not to be missed. Anna McNay