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Sexuality, Gender & Identity: Queer Artists You Should Know About

CW: War, Oppression, Hate Crime, Sexual Violence, Homophobia

Lower half of two queer individual's faces. They are wearing expressive makeup.

When thinking about sexuality, gender and identity in art history, I think many, including myself, would struggle to name a handful of artists that explore these intrinsically linked themes. In educating us all, here are some artists whose work and experience have been overlooked in art. Before we get started…

What does queer mean?

Queer is an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or cisgender. Originally meaning 'strange' or 'peculiar', queer came to be used as a derogatory term against those with same-sex desires in the late 19th century. Today it is used to describe a person's sexual or gender identity that sits outside of generalised societal norms.

‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’

- Claude Cahun

Claude cahun & marcel moore: surrealist artists, freedom fighters, lovers

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (born as Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe) were inspirational queer artists, Nazi freedom fighters and courageous defiers of 20th Century societal norms. The work we see today is only a fraction of their joint expression. The majority of their life’s work was destroyed by the Gestapo during World War II, due to its ‘degenerative’ qualities.

The French-Jewish photographer is best known for their evocative self portraits that challenge gender identity and expression. When you look at Cahun’s work, you may be shocked to find they were taken in the 1920s/30s! In a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard; as caregiver, mother and wife.

Arguably their most famous work, ‘I am in training, don’t kiss me’ (1927) depicts Cahun’s love of expression through embracing drama and performance. What I love about Cahun’s work is its directness, its captivating charm. Cahun as artist and artwork is unapologetic. They do not owe us an explanation.

Later in life, Cahun and illustrator, creative partner and lover Marcel Moore retreated away to Jersey, one of the British channel islands off the shore of Normandy. To the rural islanders they were perceived as ‘Les mesdames’ , the strange women who walked cats on leads (iconic) and wore (you’ll never guess) trousers!

The war on the horizon

The Nazi’s occupied and utilised the island of Jersey as a military training ground for nearly a decade during World War II. All the while, Cahun and Moore led an impressive anti-nazi campaign. The duo used innovative surrealist thinking to send the German occupation into complete disarray. They placed anti fascist poems into the pockets of German soldiers and used Moore’s fluency in German to translate BBC broadcasts which helped them write their resistance notes. Together, they published anti-Nazi propaganda that implied the German campaign was losing the battle, cleverly signing them off using the pseudonym ‘Der Soldat Ohne Namem’ The Soldier With No Name. I find it fascinating that they constructed identities and used other costumes & masks to achieve political action.

Against the odds, the pair was captured, imprisoned and put on trial. They were agonisingly kept in separate cells for almost a year. At the trial, Cahun courageously said to the German judge that the Germans would have to shoot her twice, as she was not only a resistor but a Jew. The pair narrowly avoided their execution when the island was liberated.

When they returned home, the majority of their artwork had been destroyed and unfortunately, Cahun passed away little more than a decade later. Some attribute this to the conditions they faced in prison combined with the loss of their life’s work.

Despite their end, their life was one of transformation and hope. They used gender and identity through words and art to redefine, defy and resist.

‘Someone, I tell you, will remember us, even in another time.’

- Sappho

Sappho & simeon solomon

In the delicate watercolour ‘Sappho & Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene’ pre-raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon depicts arguably one of the first female lover portrayals in art history, of ancient Greek poets Sappho of Lesbos (where the term Lesbian derives from!) & Erinna. The painting is full of tension and desire but also tenderness. As founder of the Simeon Solomon Research Archive Dr. Roberto C. Ferrari puts it, it’s sensual but not hypersexual. Opposed to the fetishization of lesbianism that oversaturates art history through the male gaze.

The Male Gaze, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, is a patriarchal constructed perspective where woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire. In simple terms, it is seeing women through a male lens in media, art, film, as a secondary player to male counterparts. An example in this case can be seen through Gustave Courbet’s ‘Le Sommeil:’ female lovers through a male lens.

Simeon Solomon was a gay Jewish artist of Victorian England. Highly influenced by the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, his work explored forbidden subjects such as homo-eroticism and lesbianism. He was arrested in 1873 for homosexual offences and in turn rejected by art institutions for his lifestyle and artwork.

His paintings not only contributed to visibility as a homosexual man but as an intersectional artist, creating fiercely in an antisemitic England.

‘The risk we take is on a daily basis.’

- Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi: vessel for the voiceless

South African photographer, Zanele Muholi is a self described queer ‘visual activist’ who is confronting social injustice in the contemporary art world. Their portraits confront social inequality in post apartheid South Africa, giving power and visibility back to attacked LGBTQI+ people.

Their compelling self portraits depict the black female as strong and assertive. Individually, Muholi’s eyes conceal a tenderness, they hold stories. When reading Muholi’s biographies and retrospectives I was shocked at what I found.

In ‘Only Half The Picture’ 2003-2006, Muholi’s photographs give voice to the queer community who have survived physical trauma. Despite South Africa being post Apartheid, prejudice and horrific injustice such as ‘honour killings’ and ‘corrective rape’ against Lesbian women is still prevalent. In 2010-11 Tate Modern held a retrospective of Muholi’s work. Within the exhibition catalogue is a testimony titled ‘I am not a Victim but a Victor,’ written by South African lesbian, Lungile Dladla. Dladla recounts an evening in 2010 when a man sexually assaulted her and her friend at gunpoint on their way home from her aunt’s funeral, calling it ‘corrective rape.’ His reasoning: ‘ngizoni khipha ubutabane.' ('Today I will rid you of this gayness.')

Muholi says ‘We are only written about in history when one of us has become violated somehow, which then makes us a spectacle.’ In immortalising black lesbians, transgender people and the LGBTQI+ community, Muholi is expanding visibility. They are also dismantling the long standing artist and muse relationship within art history, giving back control to the people they are photographing, allowing them to decide how they will be presented and perceived. I feel as though Muholi is the artistic vessel to their unheard voice.

Artists spreading visibility

As the conversation surrounding gender, identity and sexuality continues, more and more contemporary artists like Muholi are able to bring their experience to a mainstream audience. Artists like queer-Pakistani painter Salman Toor, whose work exquisitely explores an intimate and fictional world of the lives of young South-Asian born men.

I realised when looking back over the artists I chose to include in this article, much of their work is portraiture. In each of their representations, their art transcends face value (excuse the pun) and underpins the ultimate thread that runs through them all, a voice, loud and clear that says: I Am Here.

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