A New Generation of Artists in London Is Putting a Spotlight on Queer Issues
According to artist duo and couple Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan, “queerness is trending.” Over the past three years, Facebook introduced 71 gender options to its U.K. user profiles following their introduction in the U.S., Caitlyn Jenner made trans identity a water-cooler conversation when she came out on the cover of Vanity Fair, and “gender-fluid” entered the Oxford English Dictionary.
Queer visibility may be at an all-time high, but if interest peaks at a magazine cover, the experiences of those who fall outside the familiar axis of privilege—defined by wealth, whiteness, and conventional notions of beauty—continue to be marginalized, and with them, the intersectional politics at the heart of queer identities. Moreover, as statistics from the U.S. lay bare, when support is not extended to those most at risk from exposure, visibility can have violent consequences. In 2015, at least 21 trans people were murdered, the highest on record. Nearly all of the victims were transgender women of color.
Hastings and Quinlan are part of a growing, London-based network of artists advocating for an engagement with queer issues that goes beyond the buzz. At the top of the agenda is the continued lack of diversity in the U.K. cultural sector when it comes to representing people from the broader queer community, and a frequent failure to move beyond the inclusion of white, homosexual, cisgendered men. “Our work developed from looking critically at mainstream gay identities,” Quinlan says. “While there are things we value about those identities, they can also be claustrophobic and oppressive.”
In the summer of 2016, Hastings and Quinlan installed UK Gay Bar Directory (UKGBD) at London’s Somerset House. The work consists of a bank of monitors playing video footage they took of the interiors of 170 gay bars across the U.K. Shown alongside this film archive was the The Scarcity of Liberty (2016), a cork board on which are pinned flyers, magazine covers, and other ephemera collected while filming. Among the sea of idealized faces and rippling torsos staring out from the board, there is a striking absence of lesbian, trans, and non-binary-identifying individuals. Nor is there any body type visible that does not adhere to a narrow physical ideal.
This, Hastings and Quinlan say, is precisely their point. In an attempt to create the type of space they feel is missing, they run @GayBar, a nomadic night that moves between galleries and studios across the city. Along with sets by DJs from across the queer spectrum, they have also held vigils for trans and lesbian cultural figures such as Leslie Feinberg, author of the novel Stone Butch Blues.
Today’s queer culture has roots in feminist, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s. Against this backdrop, queer theory rose to prominence in the early 1990s, when groundbreaking U.S. writers such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick took aim at conventional wisdom regarding sex and gender. Attempting to dismantle the binary constructs denoted by the terms “male” and “female,” and the assumption that the sex we are born with corresponds to gender identity, they called for a radical reassessment of the way we understand identity.
In recent years, changing attitudes toward sexuality have been enshrined into U.K. law, with the same-sex marriage bill passed in 2013 bringing parity for gay and lesbian couples. But for many in the queer community, acceptance into the traditional fold comes at a cost they are unwilling to pay: putting aside their anti-establishment beliefs and assimilating into what contemporary queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman calls “state-sponsored narratives of belonging and becoming.” As former British Prime Minister David Cameron said prior to the bill’s introduction, “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.”
In a series of backlit CGI landscapes that Hastings and Quinlan call their “queer sublime,” the rub between the radical promise of queerness and the conformist nature of mainstream gay culture takes on epic proportions. D.I.N.K #2 (Dual Income No Kids) (2016) shows the beach at New York’s Fire Island after a hurricane has hit. Fire Island was a safe haven for gays and lesbians decades before the Stonewall riots of 1969 drew widespread attention to homophobia, and has since become a popular gay party resort. Here, the anarchic force of natural disaster is used as a tool for countering apathy. In the foreground, a battered magazine lies open at an advert from a Tiffany and Co.’s 2015 “Will You?” wedding ring campaign—the first by the brand to feature a same-sex couple. Its image shows two coiffed white men barely visible beneath a layer of sand.
Over the past decade, South London has become a hub for emerging queer artists. Arcadia Missa, a Peckham-based gallery founded in 2011 by Rozsa Farkas, is one of the city’s most prominent supporters of queer young artists. Farkas began working with Hastings and Quinlan the year after they graduated in 2014 from nearby Goldsmith’s University—itself home in recent years to leading queer and feminist scholarship, including the Centre For Feminist Research—and this past autumn, Arcadia Missa debuted their work at Frieze London.
Fellow Goldsmith’s graduate Liv Wynter is a self-described queer, working-class artist who tackles the politics of gender through poetry and rap. Wynter, who lives in South East London, rose to prominence in 2015 after taking part in the U.K.’s biggest rap battle league, the Don’t Flop Rap Battle—a competition that, for all its craft, is often depressingly sexist. During her performance, she took down her opponent for his aggressively misogynist lyrics. After he opened with a threat to “bruise her face,” which drew cheers from the audience, Wynter admonished him for “the complete predictability of performing masculinities; boys wanna front like they from correctional facilities.” The video has since gone viral, attracting over 130,000 views.
Wynter is among a number of artists producing work that brings them into direct contact with their audiences—performing live and running awareness-raising initiatives—in an attempt to forge alliances among marginalized groups. Artist Emily Pope, who has collaborated with Wynter, was instrumental in organizing School of the Damned, a free, London-based education program aimed at removing the barriers to learning created by soaring tuition fees. As Pope explains, “if you feel the social and economic effects of being outside of mainstream straight culture, you want to do something about it, and you want a community which is supportive.”
This August, Wynter hosted “Lessons in Anti Apathy” at Arcadia Missa, a discussion between four grassroots organizations that aimed to counter political indifference. On the panel were activist publication Strike!; the activist group Whereisanamendieta, which protests the exclusion of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s work and the work of other artists who are female, non-binary, or people of color (the group, with which Wynter is closely involved, believe Mendieta was murdered in 1985 by her husband, the artist Carl Andre); anti-domestic violence group Sisters Uncut; and London Palestine Action, a network that takes creative action in solidarity with Palestinians. Dysphoria Collective, which works on behalf of improving trans mental health care, also distributed zines at the event.
On a recent tour of the U.K., non-binary performance artist Travis Alabanza (who goes by the non-gendered, plural pronoun they) brought their show, Black Trans Lives Matter, to the Goldsmith’s Student Union as part of the U.K.-wide Black History Month. Alabanza, who was selected as a Barbican Young Poet for 2015/2016, honed their craft on London’s queer cabaret and club scene. In 2016, they toured the U.K. with Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid, which Alabanza describes as “my queer black gospel.”
An autobiographical, musical tour de force, it tells the story of their experience of coming out as a person of color, in a culture which too often fails to see beyond white experience. “This is for all those people who were told about Adam and Eve, Adam and Steve, but never Tamar and Jamal,” Alabanza declares. “I’m here to tell you that my existence is fucking holy.” Alabanza is currently an artist-in-residence at the Tate Modern, where they have performed alongside Wynter. They have used their role to highlight the bigotry within the gay community, as well as challenging the fetishization of black bodies.
Fuck Me Harder (2016)—half way between a song and a poem—is told from the perspective of a white sexual partner, who expects Alabanza to conform to a dominant, macho role. “Boys like boys and nothing in between,” Alabanza says, “so take off that face Travis, and put on a masc 4 masc for me.” On popular gay dating sites such as Grindr, the phrase “masc 4 masc” is used to signify a preference for men who can pass as straight, over those who present as more feminine, effectively ostracizing conspicuously queer bodies.
That Alabanza, Wynter, and Hastings and Quinlan have all been invited to exhibit at public institutions shows a growing awareness of queer issues within the British art industry. But there is still much to be done. “I definitely feel we get fetishized as lesbian artists,” Hastings says of her and Quinlan’s recent rise to prominence. Alabanza shares a similar view. “The art world cannot really be a space for queer folk of color,” they say, “as long as it still charges extortionate prices for us to visit exhibitions, and hires only white people as critics.” On the question of what needs to change, Alabanza is clear. “These places can start by hiring us, and not just for a single night—by actually putting queer folk, particularly queer folk of color, into curatorial and commissioning roles.”