Queer Activism Through Paintings


By Unnati Hirwani | June 12 2021

This is the first volume of a two-piece article. To read the second volume, click here.

Note: The article consists of images displaying nudity and is highly interpretational in several aspects.

Art in the widest sense can be understood as a way of communicating one’s thoughts, expressions, feelings and emotions without explicitly uttering words into the physical world. Visual art may refer to the subtle sense of being, which an artist encapsulates in their work for the world to see- be it a painting, a photograph, a piece of architecture, a film, or any type of a visual spectacle.

Through art, the voiceless get a medium to converse with people born generations after them, and with people born in different corners of the world, thus effectively giving the power to just one single art piece to impact thousands of people born across the dimensions of time and space.

Emergence of ‘Queer’ Art

As the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay communities of the United States and Canada in the 1980s and millions died, the then U.S. President, Ronald Reagan’s administration deliberately neglected the handling of this massive health crisis due the homophobia prevalent at the time, with a large number of people citing the epidemic as a “punishment on the community inflicted by God.”

The above poster was created as a symbol of the Silence=Death project, which was founded to raise consciousness about the AIDS epidemic. The pink triangle was specifically chosen for its association with the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

In a survey conducted on doctors from mid to late 1980s, an overwhelming number of them indicated that they did not feel any ethical obligation to treat or care for patients with HIV/AIDS while the right-wing newspapers and journalists continued to paint the victims of this epidemic in an increasingly dehumanising sense, further stigmatizing the community.

In these times when an entire generation of gay people met with their untimely deaths with nothing but hate from the outside world, the term ‘queer’ started gaining popularity. Initially meant as a slur, the word has been re-appropriated and embraced by the LGBTQ+ community to denote non-normative sexual and gender identities which dare to defy the binary.


The AIDS Memorial Quilt is an enormous memorial made to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Weighing at an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world and was created to collect funds for AIDS service organisations. As of 1996, more than $1.7 million was raised.

The activist art born out from people’s urge to depict the humanity which was within them, and which the outside world reeking of queerphobic lacked was termed as ‘Queer Art’. Since then, the term has been used to refer to art practises which draw from experiences related to being a part of the LGBT+ spectrum and is not restricted to the gender and identity politics associated with the epidemic. The scope has been broadened to encompass a large variety of art which exists outside the historical time-frame from which the terms gay, lesbian, transgender and such were coined.

Many queer artists view their marginality as a source of inspiration to formulate powerful narratives that resist dominant understandings of gender, race, class and sexuality. For others, their queer identity has little to do with their art. 


The It Takes a Lifetime to Get Exactly Where You Are tapestry is a reproduction of a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, meant as a retaliation against the narrative that the project was ill-planned and lacked political direction in its formative years.

Stemming from this, it is important to understand that queer art is highly site-specific, with queer art practices emerging very differently depending on context and medium. Hence, queer art is not a rigidly defined genre, which again, is the very essence of queerness, i.e., transcending social boundaries, not fitting in any preconceived gender or sexual notions and being fluid in identity.


Painting the Revolution

For the majority of the history of the human race, it has never been socially acceptable to come out as a LGBT+ person. Following this, queer art is largely shaped by two conflicting ideals: one is to hide any references to LGBT+ identity and experiences, and the other is to showcase visible representations of the community because not many exist openly in the world.

Hence, artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin who existed in the mid-twentieth century developed discrete means of signifying their queerness in their art works- which was soon uncovered by art historians like Richard Meyer and Jonathan D. Katz.

Jasper Johns was born in 1930 and by the tender age of five, he had already known that he would grow up to be an artist. He completed three semesters at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and then served two years in the U.S. Army, where he is said to have developed a fascination for the American flag and heroism; which would go on to be a recurrent theme in his works.


Jasper Johns’ famous White Flag is a bold statement about being a gay man in a restrictive American society. The lack of colour symbolises oppression and a hidden life, devoid of colour. The colour white is also associated with purity, which is in mocking contrast with the social deviance which queerness attaches with itself.

The Art Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon notes that "Johns was in a relationship with Robert Rauschenberg but if he admitted he was gay he could go to jail. With White Flag he was saying America 'was the land where...your voice cannot be heard. This is the America we live in; we live under a blanket. We have a cold war here. This is my America.'"

Johns’ works reflect the Dadaist features (referring to characteristics of the avant-garde Dadaism movement which flourished in Europe around 1920s and was a scream against the increasingly modern capitalist society) of subverting the artistic status quo as the “things the mind already knows,” becoming the bulk idea behind his paintings. Most of his art consists of certain symbolic shapes and marks which clearly display their derivation from factual, unimagined things in life, including casts of parts of the body, handprints and footprints, or stamps made from the every-day objects found in his studio, such as the rim of a tin can.

Together with several Abstract Expressionist painters of the previous generation such as Jackson Pollock, Johns is considered to be one of the most influential painters of the twentieth century and is also placed on the same pedestal as Rembrandt and Picasso in terms of being the greatest printmakers of any age.

Credited with bringing about a revolution in the art culture of 1960s by the infusion of Pop, the brash and brilliant Larry Rivers, born in 1923, was one of the fiercest critics and rebels of the Abstract Expressionist movement.


Larry Rivers’ work The Second Greatest Homosexual explores the sense of otherness and the mask of conformity which LGBT+ have to adopt in order to conceal their non-conformity identity in the society, and the intense mental trauma and pain it causes which must remain hidden from the outside society at all costs.

Rivers was an artist with prodigious talent, developed by the famous Hans Hofmann. His paintings often included texts, and the rationale behind why is quite obvious given his identity as a writer. Rivers was also a talented musician, filmmaker and sculptor.

Born to an impoverished family residing in a ramshackle hut in the year 1934, the Indian revolutionary Bhupen Khakhar lost his father when he had barely reached the age of five. Forced by his family and economic constraints to take up commercial studies against his interest, Khakhar drudgery worked as a chartered accountant for a good amount of his life.

However, this changed when he met the Padmashri and Padmabhushan awardee Gulam Sheikh in 1958. From this moment onwards, Khakhar laid the foundation of an artistic pilgrimage to his true self and went on to create art which was boldly figurative, highly controversial and monumental in the setting of the LGBT+ community within the Indian landscape.


Bhupen Khakhar's You Can't Please All shows the intersectional merging of his identity as a gay man in a conservative society where one’s true self must be hidden. In this autobiographical work, Bhupen seems to be far away, removed from the society as he gazes down upon them, signifying the concealed hidden lives the LGBT+ are coerced to live.

Parallels between this painting and the old-age story of the son who carries the donkey after hearing crude remarks and then letting his father carry it after being criticised by others who felt that the father should be honourable enough to carry the burden can be seen. The work is colloquially termed as his coming out story, as Khakhar accepts and embraces his identity.

Despite being self-taught and embarking on his artistic journey at a relatively old age, Khakhar is an honourable recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri. He has become an extraordinarily popular artist with his provocative and confessional works. His pieces have been displayed at the famous Museum of Modern Art and The Tate Gallery.

A painter who rejected the prevalent genre of art in his time was Francis Bacon. Born in 1909, Bacon favoured a dark and distinctive sense of realism rather than adopt abstraction.

Thrown out of his house at an early age due to the cruel homophobia practised by his parents, Bacon struggled in his former years, taking up occasional odd jobs and travelling through the streets of London, Berlin, Paris and dodging his rent. A regular in Soho, Bacon led the hedonistic life artists are often associated with (or dream about).


Francis Bacon’s most powerful work is considered to be Two Figures. Queer theorist Catherine Howard notes that in this masterpiece, "The male body is both venerated and reduced to the status of animal; restricted yet liberated from societal conventions of desire."

The faces of both the figures are distorted, once again hidden from the outside world indicating the conflict between visibility and the need to conceal. The expressions can either be viewed as in immense anguish or pleasure, without any finality distinguishing the superiority of one truth above the other.

Bacon was extremely instrumental in suggesting new ways to bring about a union of photography and painting. Despite being a pioneer of change, his outlook on paintings was profoundly traditional and continues to inspire artists to this date.

Another notable pioneer is David Hockney who gained widespread recognition for his semi-abstract paintings based on the ideas of homosexual love before it was decriminalized in Britain. In his magnus opus work which is shown below, Hockney has portrayed red-painted couples embracing one other while floating amidst fragments from a Walt Whitman poem.


David Hockney’s abstract painting We Two Boys Together Clinging shows two men wrapped together, with their arms tightly secured against the other. His unconventional work which defies the standard aesthetically pleasing approach to art is often seen as a bold statement of independence that refuses to be bound to any rules, with the grammatically incorrect title resonating this sentiment.

Hockney is a versatile artist and his photography collection is something worthy of praise as well, considering that he has produced some or other artworks in every media available.

A much-celebrated name amongst Indian artist, Amrita Sher-Gil is someone almost everyone has heard about. Born to a Jewish mother in 1913, she travelled back to India after twenty years, with an intense yearning to discover her homeland. Known as the Indian Frida Kahlo, she presented an exquisite mosaic of Indian and Western traditions through her often-nude paintings.


Rich in colour and texture, Amrita Sher-Gil's works perfectly display nudity and the true sense of self without taking a voyeuristic approach. Her paintings are a fierce attempt at female liberation and smash the silent taboos surrounding sex in the oppressive society.

Committed to the upliftment of women, Amrita Sher-Gil painted Indian females belonging to the lower strata of society. She once described her decision, saying, “I realized my artistic mission: to interpret the life of Indians and particularly of the poor Indians pictorially, to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies.”

Born into a small rural village in Canada, Agnes Martin immigrated to the United States in 1932 with hopes of becoming a teacher. After securing a degree in art education, she pursued a type of obscure art which can be roughly defined as a combination of Minimalism and Zen Buddhist ideas.


A self-defined abstract expressionist, Agnes Martin’s minimalist works have been the pride of contemporary art museums as her work drew inspiration from her identity as a schizophrenic lesbian.

Martin once humorously remarked that she was ‘more doorknob than a woman,’ with her abstractness being a wrapped indicator of her queer need to be seen as someone other than a human as she could not quite fit into the gender and other such concepts defined by society, thereby almost reconciliating herself with an object.

Absorbed with the thoughts of finding more to life and discovering the glorious abstract ideas of true happiness, Martin was highly influenced by spiritual ideas of Transcendentalism, which is a theological school of philosophy basing its foundation of the principles of embracing nature, rejecting materialism and believing that human beings have access to knowledge outside the normal physical realm, as she painted the same repetition of a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, with enough variation to pass off as different artworks over and over again.  

A winner of the much-coveted National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, Martin’s works have been described as an "essay in discretion on inward-ness and silence."


The Hidden Politics in Queer Paintings

As stated in the beginning, art is a form of self-expression. Paintings are, perhaps, the fiercest form of self-expression. With the stroke of a brush dipped in warm hues and tragic experiences, some artists have painted the whole world rainbow, forcing the politicians, the queerphobic parents and the whole society at large to open up their eyes and understand that the black and white binary does not exist.

Since all art draws from autographical elements, separating the artist’s identity from their art does not work. Paintings are often hidden gateways to the artist’s most intimate secrets, the part of their vision and soul which they cannot translate to words. In a society which still refuses to even acknowledge their mere presence, queer art is a defiant move and is inherently political in nature. It seeks to normalise the identities which dare to break the binary and show they too are human.