8 LGBTQIA+ Artists on Self-Portraiture and Expressions of Pride
For artists, self-portraiture can be a powerful act of self-reflection. In making themselves the focus of their work, the artist reveals and expresses elements of their identity, on their own terms. They determine gesture, form, light, color, and the inclusion or exclusion of body parts; what we see is something that the artist sees within themselves, an assertion of selfhood and visibility. “It’s a power shift from being defined to defining yourself,” said artist Alannah Farrell. “A reclaiming of identity.”
Within the LGBTQIA+ community, visibility is often a double-edged sword: It can be a tool of self-empowerment, as well as a threat to one’s safety. The radical act of expressing one’s identity, despite rejection, political pushback, and the risk of violence, is a triumph of self-actualization in the face of public scrutiny.
For Pride Month this year, we spoke with artists of the LGBTQIA+ community about their own self-portraiture and the act of expressing oneself through art. From blown glass to photography to painting, these artworks show us how artists can represent themselves across a wide array of media and genres, including both abstraction, realism, or alter egos. The artworks included don’t aim to represent the LGBTQIA+ community—that is an impossible feat. Rather, they offer a glimpse into the complexities and strength inherent in queer identities. Read the artists’ responses below and explore more of their work—and that of other contemporary artists—in the collection “Expressions of Pride: Self-Portraits and Reflections by LGBTQIA+ Artists” on Artsy, curated by Rachel Weisman.
Constellations XIX (2019)
I made this self-portrait as a cardboard cutout in the back room of my childhood home. I would have recurring nightmares about that room, so this is a reenactment of that nightmare. I’ve been working with cutouts as stand-ins for myself, as a conversation starter, as a decoy, as a way to avoid using Photoshop in my work over the years. I was tired of photographing myself so I decided to be tired of photographing my cardboard self instead.
This isn’t a mindset I like to have, but I often think that making self-portraits is my twisted way to claim authorship over my image and not be misattributed. I’ve experienced being mistaken for someone before, and a friend has been mistaken for me, and that happens in different ways. I’ve had parts of my artist statement used to describe another queer Chinese photographer in a magazine. It might sound silly, but given the frequency of these experiences throughout my life, it’s less silly to me. Ultimately, I just want to say, “I was here, this is my work, and it may have done something for you.”
I participate in Pride just by existing; my existence is a series of constant confirmation hearings because I’m used to having to explain myself. I’m less concerned with convincing people that I’m an artist, and even less engaged with telling them “what” I am when they ask me. People try to figure our bodies into their narrative; I’d rather figure my way out towards my own.
Untitled Self-Portrait (2019)
In 1996, at the age of 18, I made a series of photographs titled “Self-Portrait with Death,” where I posed naked with a skull, reinterpreting the 17th-century vanitas motif. These images are a very personal reflection on death: At the time, I was dealing with my mother’s imminent death, and I was also coming to terms with my sexual identity in a conservative social context that had so far successfully othered me. I stumbled upon these images in my studio 20 years later and decided to reinterpret them. I was interested in confronting myself now as an adult on camera with the changes on my face and body. The image here is a part of the 2019 “Untitled Self-Portrait” series, where I am posing with a mirror and a skull, and wearing a leather glove. The two series together are testament to the process of growing older both physically and emotionally.
I use self-portraiture in two ways: I create photographs where I respond subjectively to personal and emotional processes. These images are often made in response to and in conversation with historical artworks and references such as the vanitas motif, religious paintings, and iconic gay artists who shaped my understanding of queer self-representation, like Pedro Lemebel, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe. I also use my body in endurance performances that have a broader social and political meaning. That is the case of Inverted World (2016) and Legacy (2019), where I perform difficult actions for a live audience and/or for the camera that speak to the weight of historical mythology and historiography on queer subjectivities, identities, and bodies. In Inverted World, I perform a physical reenactment of Caravaggio’s 1601 painting Crucifixion of Saint Peter, an upside-down crucifixion, assisted by two bondage artists to discuss the ways in which narratives of martyrdom have been historically assimilated and foundational to normative social behaviors. And in Legacy, while wearing a dental gag, I try to speak a historical timeline of HIV/AIDS from 1908 until the present. These works are not about me per se, but I use my body and my experience as stand-ins for larger issues that affect my communities.
I honor the history and legacy of Pride and support the commemoration of the LGBTQIA+ pioneers who fought hard to shape sexual and gender politics since the 1960s. But I am less interested in the ways in which Pride has become a commercial event that is not critical of the ways in which LGBTQIA+ politics have largely turned into politics of tolerance and assimilation that often reproduce the status quo. Fortunately, alternative events to the official gay Pride are now available: rallies, marches, and parties that recover the urgency, militant, and critical spirit that our social politics need and deserve. I have marched in the Queer Liberation March since it was founded a couple of years ago. This event feels like it really represents the issues of social justice that affect our communities.
Self Portrait in Lava Field, Huldufólk, Iceland (2019)
This image was shot while I was attending an artist residency in Iceland in April 2019, where I created imagery that looks at the correlation between Icelandic folklore of Huldufólk (“Hidden people”) and my body as a nonbinary person, both visible and invisible. The self-portraits were shot in the landscape with its shifting tectonic plates, heavy winds, and constant state of change. Furthermore, these images explore the idea of a trans body as a natural body, becoming one with nature, both always in flux.
The Huldufólk are the spirits of nature in Iceland: They coexist with the landscape and are neither good nor evil. They are at once feared, but also revered as protectors of nature. In creating these images, I was interested in exploring the combination of fear and high esteem Icelandic folks hold toward the Huldufólk, and how those same themes can be applied to a trans body. Similarly, much like a body undergoing hormonal changes, Iceland itself is always shifting: from bright sun to heavy winds in the same hour, to tectonic plates crashing against one another, economic crashes, and roads being built on hundred-year-old moss fields.
Self-portraiture allows me to dig deeper into what it means to reclaim autonomy over our stories as marginalized individuals. In addition to this, I work with the hope of providing representation to and solidarity with future generations of queer and trans individuals as they navigate both personal joys and institutional hardship and erasure.
I celebrate Pride every day by loving myself and my community and creating the kind of world I want to live in, a world where queer and trans folks are respected, celebrated, and elevated.
Vessel of Possibility (Self Portrait) III (2018)
Vessel of Possibility (Self Portrait) III is a sculpture molded from a cast of my head. The heads of Black men are a repeated motif across my work as I consider our psyches alongside historical constructions of Black masculinity. Imaging myself in glass speaks to desires of malleability that connect to the queer experience.
As an artist who rarely engages in self-portraiture, I needed to reflect on something internal rather than explicitly represent my exterior self. So many aspects of Black queer people go unseen or are consumed more viciously by social constructs and other deluding biases. Here, I get more freedom in expressing my being within an ambiguous blur.
Pride is great for all of its political history and collective meaning, but also an excellent time to shake ass and get drunk with people who love you for you.
History of Violence (2021)
History of Violence is, on its surface, a dorky self-portrait that depicts a violent past channeled through a fictional present. When painting this work, I was thinking about violent histories and the horrible realization that people can be both victims and perpetrators of violence. In this painting, I am both a victim and perpetrator. I am constantly engaging in the desire to be a “good” person while grappling with the parts of myself that might be both consciously and unconsciously diametrically opposite of good. Ultimately this painting is a complex, critical look at the many facets of violence within myself.
The self-portraits I make are a way to release my imperfect parts: humorous, rebellious, bold, self-deprecating, disrespectful, and facing uncomfortable truths head-on. I will be the first to admit that I’m a very flawed human. I used to have mixed feelings about self-portraits, but now I’m beginning to think everyone should make them. It’s a power shift from being defined to defining yourself, a reclaiming of identity. And I see parallels with how society is finally awakening to gender and sexuality. It’s not up to society and its many biases to define us. We, as individuals, should define ourselves.
Pride means being anti-racist; it means fighting for all humans’ safety and equal rights, all genders and sexualities, and not stopping until we achieve that. I think it’s a lifetime commitment to doing that work.
I participate in Pride year-round in small ways. Over 2020 and 2021, I’ve participated in many fundraising shows for organizations that know what they’re doing, like Color of Change, The Ali Forney Center, NAACP Legal Fund, Food Bank for New York City, and others. I encourage those of us who can support these organizations to do so!
Lady Encapsulates (Self-Portrait) (2017)
I create self-portraits often and especially when something extraordinary is happening. This was the first time I got fillers injected and I loved the bruising on my face.
I do participate in Pride but I don’t believe it’s a value that we should elevate. I think of pride as conceit and have expunged pride from my life in order to not be vulnerable to shame. The only way to not have any shame is to not have pride and to find humility.
We Were Gonna Be Alright (2018)
We Were Gonna Be Alright was made in the midst of the anxiety I was feeling as a queer Latinx person during the previous administration. I was extremely worried about our community and the uncertain future we were facing in regards to our freedom to love and marry.
It has been said that all work to some degree is self-portraiture. Though mine is a less literal or indirect representation, I often include personal items or objects such as bed sheets or vases in my work. I consider these objects of everyday life to be a sort of stand-in for the figure or the self.
Representation is so important for our community, especially when you’re still trying to find your people or your way in the world. I participated in more events as a younger Queer person, but now what Pride means to me is fully accepting yourself, to live every day in your truth, in your skin. The LGBTQIA+ community has come a long way and has a long way to go still. I want to thank those that fought before us and in turn keep fighting for those that come after.
Chiffon Thomas, Untitled, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery.
The piece I selected for my self-portrait is a silicon body cast of my chest being pierced with iron oxidized nails. It is also bound to rebar wires that become ornamental elements of beauty, yet function as a material used to reinforce my body. I am fusing the organic with the industrial as signifiers of transformation and of the self-inflicted violence and modifications my body endures while maintaining its structural capacity to perform. This piece is a part of a larger series of works entitled “Antithesis,” which investigates discourses pertaining to gender identity, identity politics, technology, body dysmorphia, bio-politics, and many other topics that echoe the structure of society.
I need to see what is happening in the spaces of my mind and body that I cannot always reach. When I am able to see the rejection, repression, persecution, name calling, physical and psychological battles manifest themselves in my work…I can cope and heal. I try to allow some elements of beauty to be birthed out of those experiences and I see my work as forms of resistance. The more people see me through my work, I know they feel like I can also see them. We’re interconnected, we reflect things back at each other all the time, and everything living has struggles.
From an introspective stance, Pride to me is something that I embody every day and grapple with on a day-to-day basis internally and externally. My body has a trans and ambiguous identity and through wearing it every day, I’ve learned to be the most proud of it and grateful for its ability. It takes a great deal of courage to push against social constructs and be your authentic self no matter the consequences or circumstances. Pride for me is equivalent to a courageous moment, action, and overall way of being. It’s truly a powerful and yet very difficult responsibility I have to take on to challenge societal norms, so that I and others can feel like our lives are worth living.
Explore the collection “Expressions of Pride: Self-Portraits and Reflections by LGBTQIA+ Artists” on Artsy.