Part 01: COLORING THE INVISIBLE RAINBOW
LGBT+ Themes in Sculptures and Photographs
By Unnati Hirwani | June 17 2021
Queer Activism Through Paintings
This article is the second volume of a two-piece article. To read the first volume, click here.
Note: The article consists of images displaying nudity and is highly interpretational in several aspects.
Immovable Sculptures, Movable Hearts
The making of sculptures as an art form has largely dwindled in the last centuries. The amount of time, energy and overall commitment, not to mention the skill, sculptures take to be transformed from a half-thought idea to a three-dimensional figure breathing life was too much. Nevertheless, sculptures are still one of the most awed art mediums to exist till date. Their relative scarcity has made them much more precious.
One of the most hauntingly beautiful and memorable sculptors of the 20th century was George Segal. Born in 1924, Segal was from a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors.
George Segal’s Gay Liberation is one of the first pieces of public art displaying solidarity for LGBT+ individuals and was made to honour the Stonewall Riots.
Distinguishing features of this magnificent work include the presence of women, as even in the fight for liberation of the queer community, women get left behind and it is mainly men who are at the forefront. In addition, the work portrays the figures being romantically enwrapped with one another and works to actively normalise and humanise the community.
The most existential of all pop artists, Segal often made life size models based on his friends, family and neighbours, and received a Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award from the International Sculpture Center for his noteworthy works.
Born in 1963, Patricia Cronin is another contemporary sculptor who has challenged the existing gender and political inequalities. Unflinching in her work, Cronin has several works made from a feminist and lesbian lens.
Patricia Cronin’s heartbreakingly beautiful Memorial to a Marriage features two sapphic women soundly sleeping while their limbs are tangled together in a tight embrace. The work is a stark contrast to the usual characteristics of being loud, political and flamboyant associated with queer art and offers the soft, and often forgotten part of being queer and in love.
Though the nomenclature to recognise it was just born in the last decades, queer art is not a new phenomenon. The existence of it can be dated back to decades and even centuries before such terms were coined. The case studies which have been elaborated below exquisitely build up on this truth as they explore the themes of homosexuality, polyamory and fluidity in identity.
The engravings present on the walls of the Khajuraho temples in India were sculpted around 970 AD and havej been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Khajuraho temples located in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh consist of a profusion of rich symbolisms, intricate details and masterly sculptures. The temples were built in honour of not just one religion, but two, i.e., Hinduism and Jainism, stressing upon the tradition of coexistence and acceptance of different identities and are proof that queerness is not a new idea in the Indian cultural narrative.
Old engravings and paintings featuring queerness can also be observed in the works of Michelangelo, who was born during the Renaissance and has been gifted with the title of the ‘Greatest Artist of all Time’ by several art historians and critics. Having lost his mother at the age of six and being a homosexual in an age where the mere word could get one imprisoned, Michelangelo’s life was filled with immense sadness. However, he did not let it drown him and instead challenged the status quo.
Michelangelo’s sculptures and frescoes often included nude figures huddled up together, often in intimate positions. His painting The Last Judgement was first fiercely criticised by the Church for its bold portrayal of men.
Drawing large masses of devoted fans to this day, Michelangelo’s work was infused with an emotional, realistic and psychological intensity that had never been seen before. Despite his rebelliousness, he managed to produce some of the world's most iconic masterpieces and is hailed as an all-time legendary artistic genius.
Photographs Captured Through a Rainbow Lens
It is believed that a single photograph can speak a thousand words. Whether it be conversations about thawing the misconstrued notions of queerness as a disease or looking for genuine representation instead of a shambolic rainbow stamped logo of businesses in June, the LGBT+ community has a lot to say. And it is about due time that we listen.
When the AIDS epidemic was at its ruthless peak, Robert Mapplethorpe dared to scream what others only whispered in the quiet hours of lonely nights. Born in 1946, Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photographs featuring flowers, contorted faces and sexual poses horrified and thrilled America- sparking off a nationwide debate as to whether art should even be funded or not.
Mapplethorpe’s works challenged the traditional society which found the displays of nudity horrendous. His portraits and self-portraits are reminiscent of the classical beauty which he sought to revive.
Despite, or maybe because, of being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, Mapplethorpe took up even bolder and more ambitious projects, having displayed his works at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Two years after, he passed away, being another hero the queer community lost to the epidemic.
Catherine Opie is another contemporary American photographer exploring queer themes. Born in 1961, Opie investigates the personal history of her models and their relation to the queer culture, often giving an autobiographical tinge to her works.
With her body adorned with an exquisite myriad of rashes, sketch marks and scars along with an added tattoo, Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Nursing is a rebellious act against the standard patriarchal norms. It displays her chest which is always censored by the media which is focused on hyper-sexualising female bodies without their consent.
Showing her inner self in the portraits, her photographs seem like deep confessions of the model’s inner self, their most intimate form of communication. For this masterly excellence, Opie has received retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008 and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in 2011.
Nan Goldin was born in 1953 and focuses on LGBT+ bodies, the HIV crises and moments of intimacy. After suffering from and struggling with drug abuse for a major part of her life, Goldin turned to activism through her photographs, using them as a political tool to inform the public about issues which were personal to her, thereby relentlessly advocating for reform.
Goldin encapsulates brutally candid pictures of herself and her subjects, often in intimate situations, redefining what can or cannot be shared with the society.
Goldin has donated a bulk of her wealth to charities helping AIDS victims and is the recipient of innumerable critical acclaim, with her works being displayed in over fifteen museums.
Another breathtakingly spectacular queer artist displaying the lives of those who get overlooked is Soumya Sanskar Bose. Being a documentary photographer, Bose uses his creative genius to explore the issues of caste, desire, power and sexuality.
Bose’s project Full Moon on a Dark Night portrays the lives of normal queer people through a realistic sense, where the effortless beauty of being is visible.
By making extensive use of symbolic metaphors in his photography projects and sometimes showing a perfect world where the LGBT+ don’t have to regularly fight against the restrictive laws, Bose has succeeded in starting conversations surrounding the daily hassles the LGBT+ community faces in the Indian society and has subsequently, inspired and influenced many people.
Avion Pierce is an emerging photographer who showcases the life of a lesbian black couple through her works in an intersectional attempt to give more power to the marginalised groups of society.
Hauntingly beautiful in detail, Pearce aims to fill the gaps of the history books by reconstructing tales of the Black queer community.
Noticing the way queer and black stories, even when told out loud and given recognition, are shrouded in misery and sadness, Pierce is actively working on a project which give these communities the proper representation which they deserve.
Why Does Queer Art Matter?
Art is inherently political. This attribute gets magnified multiple times in the case of queer art and the first reason is hidden behind the terminology itself.
Given the dark, homophobic history of the word ‘queer’ and its consequent re-appropriation, its reclamation doesn’t allow it to only being an umbrella term but also attaches a keen sense of political in-your-face revolt to itself. Coming from this, making queer art itself is political because it challenges the traditional boundaries of what should be seen and concealed in the public sphere.
In queer art, the ideals of imagination, attentiveness and social unconventionality are common themes as opposed to homogeneity, routine and conformity. These concepts play a significant role in the lives of queer individuals as they struggle to survive in a world designed to silence and kill them.
Hence, by projecting their stories of struggle and survival in their art, queer art is the platform where LGBTQ+ individuals finally get a chance at attaining the long due representation they deserve. Queer art also functions to normalise queer experiences and instils a level of confidence and acceptance in artists.
With this same poignantly fierce spirit the photographer Xander Foo once confessed, “Individuals such as Arca (pictured above) embrace the variations of self while inspiring others to do the same. Pride is about looking inward, recognizing the alien inside, and surrendering to the dynamics of your truth with the greatest compassion.”
An Ending Note
With the advent of social media, making art and showing it to a wide audience has become quite an effortless task. This coupled with the gradual acceptance of queer identities has led to a pleasant increase in the amount of queer art being produced, especially with the self-fashioning and self-representation provision the new web space provides.
The arrival of newfound technology and social media has also given rise to a wide array of contemporary art forms. Artists - and perhaps queer artists in particular - no longer feel bound by medium or genre. The word ‘queer’ is chosen specifically for the way in which it is always changing in relation to the norms established and imposed by mainstream culture.
Another notable observation is that queer art is not necessarily linear in fashion. Rather, it is recursive, especially with its tendency to look back on the past and produce memorials honouring a generation of queer folks who never got the chance to live their life.
Made by, and largely for- a community that has been historically oppressed, traditionally overlooked by economic support systems, politically exploited and socially repressed since centuries, queer art is often defiant, confrontational, and asks bold questions about how society is and what it should be like. It relentlessly fights the conventional ideas and works to actively dismantle the oppressive patriarchal norms.